Through a Glass, Darkly

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Home, James
These designated drivers deliver you, and your car, to your door.
By John La Briola

At the corner of 19th and Market streets, the rumble of a gas-powered generator combines with the sounds of stupidity: drunken club-goers returning to their cars after Let Out. It's a chilly night, and all the women in heels and hoochie shirts have goose bumps. Jonathan Saine sits alone in a well-lit trailer, wearing a headset, monitoring feeds from a Global Positioning System. When he looks up from his laptop to the window by the counter, it's usually to answer the same slurred question for the umpteenth time: "No, we don't sell burritos."

As the Denver-based general manager of NightRiders Inc., Saine sells something far easier to stomach after a night of reckless boozing: a worry-free alternative to getting behind the wheel. "We're not a cab service," he explains. "We drive you home in your own car when you've had too much to drink. We use your car so you have it home the next day. With a cab, you often have to take it both ways."

That raises a fundamental question: How does the NightRiders driver get back after depositing both car and owner?

"See those scooters?" Saine asks, pointing to a fleet of tiny collapsible two-wheelers. Black and silver, imported from China and with a top speed of 40 mph, they look better suited to a circus clown than some safety patroller -- especially one uniformed in a racing helmet and motocross coveralls that advertise Coors Light, the official sponsor of NightRiders. "The scooters break down into four pieces," he continues. "We put each piece into a separate heavy-duty bag so it's all sealed off, toss it in your trunk, drive you home, put the bike back together and ride it back to dispatch."

The brainchild of twenty-somethings Carl Grodnik, Gary Calnan and Brad Dickerhofe, NightRiders was born in Boulder more than three years ago. In 2003, the National Commission Against Drunk Driving cited the co-founders as "unsung heroes" and flew them to Washington, D.C., to receive the Corporate Leadership Award.

In September, NightRiders expanded service to Denver and points beyond. For an initial fee of $15, plus $2 per mile, conscientious drunks can arrange rides home for both themselves and their cars through a toll-free number (1-888-741-5963) -- provided they're coherent enough to make the call. "I'll give them an exact quote if they can tell me what bar they're at and their home address," Saine promises. "Some guy wanted to go to Aspen, and we calculated it as a $350 ride. But he never ended up taking it."

At NightRiders' mobile office in the heart of LoDo's nightclub district, most fares result from walk-ups or ads posted in bar bathrooms. "One huge drawing point for us in Denver is the fact that no cars can be parked on the streets from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.," Grodnik notes. "So calls get heavier as the bars' closing time approaches. If you're still here, you've most likely been drinking. But around 2:30 in the morning, all these parking lots will be dead empty, and that'll mean all those people who have been drinking are driving."

NightRiders takes care even with the safety-minded stragglers. "We have to make sure that they have valid insurance and registration when we get in the car so we're covered under their intermittent driver clause," Grodnik says. "A lot of times they're not as shit-faced as people would think. They have to be sober enough to understand that they shouldn't be driving. So they're not belligerent drunks. They're kind of a responsible drunk, in a way."

While those responsible drunks aren't necessarily rich, "it's not just people working paycheck to paycheck," he adds. "Some have really nice cars, and some drive junkers that you have trouble starting. There's definitely a lot of repeat customers who've had a DUI and understand the problems related to it and don't ever want to get it again."

And a DUI is easier to get than ever before, since Colorado lowered its legal blood-alcohol content level from .10 to .08 on July 1. According to Grodnik, the cost of being popped for a DUI averages $8,866, including lawyer fees, court costs and mandatory alcohol classes. Those convicted of the charge also lose their license for six months and are required to do thirty hours of community service.

"When people take us and we go by police, they love rolling down the window and screaming out, 'Hey, I'm hammered!'" Saine says. "'Cause the cops can't do anything to 'em. Sometimes they want to stop and get a burger at a fast-food place or get cigarettes. Sometimes they want to stop and throw up."

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