Confessions of a Designated Driver

I picked her up at Mutt Lynch's near the Newport Pier about midnight one Saturday not long ago. She was tall, 25, brunette. She wanted to go back to her place, so I drove. But we were in the car only a couple of minutes when she got a cell-phone call. Talking loudly in a Persian accent—she insisted it was New York I was hearing—she endlessly repeated jokes with her friend from the latest Conan O'Brien, stopping only to roll down the window to ask guys crossing the street to show their tits. One guy did.

After she got off the phone, she started talking about her work as a trauma nurse. "I've become pretty fatalistic about death," she said. "If someone wants to kill himself, he's going to kill himself."

Then she started telling me in gory detail about this guy who was in the ER recently. He had tried to kill himself by slashing open his neck with an industrial masonry drill.

All part of the job—not hers, mine. From New Year's Eve until the end of May, I was a volunteer with the Orange County chapter of the Designated Driver's Association (DDA). Ever find yourself at home Sunday morning after a night of barhopping down Main in Surf City, not knowing how you or your car got there? Maybe I gave you a ride.

DDA was formed in Virginia in 1994 to keep people from driving drunk. The seven-month-old Orange County chapter dispatches volunteers to bars in Newport and Huntington each Friday and Saturday night. Volunteers go out in teams of two. A team will meet up with the drunk or drunks who want to go home. One volunteer will drive the drunk home in his or her car, while the other volunteer follows. That's it—no car, no ride. We're not a taxi service. We drive the drunk home—not to another bar or liquor store, although we're asked to do that all the time.

After doing a story on DDA for the Weekly ("Driving Miss Dazed," Jan. 17), I volunteered one night each weekend. Since then I've been punched, grabbed, laughed at, goosed, hugged, called "savior," stood up, kissed and stiffed. Tips are much appreciated, since we pay for our own gas, but they're by no means mandatory. This isn't well understood, as in the case of the hot trauma nurse. When I finally parked her car at her home, she got out and fished through her purse. Eventually, she handed me a dollar.

"Sorry, this is all I have," she said.

"Nah, it's okay," I told her, just wanting to get out of there. "Don't worry about it."

"No, no," she said, pressing the dollar into my hand. "Take it. It's for you. You deserve it."

* * *

Most people I've driven home have been pleasant and coherent. And thankfully I never had anyone throw up during a ride. A few close calls, but no actual discharge. No one has gotten violent, either. Well, not really violent.

A call came in late one night to pick up three guys in an Explorer parked outside of the Stag Bar in Newport. When my partner and I pulled up, we only found two guys.

"I thought there were three," I said, taking the caller's car keys.

"Yeah, the third guy's coming," he said. "We had to walk here."

I looked down the street. A drunk stumbled across Balboa Boulevard, tripped over the curb and then lay down on a bench.

"Is that him?"

The caller looked down the street. "Yeah. Let me go get him."

Five minutes later, we were all buckled in and on the 55 freeway headed to Irvine. The caller was in the passenger seat beside me. In the back, the wasted guy was drooling on his buddy's shoulder.

Keys, please!

"That guy's in bad shape," I said, glancing back.

"You think I'm in bad shape?!" the wasted guy suddenly mumbled. Then he started jabbing me in the shoulder. Not hard, but it didn't make driving the Explorer any easier.

"Dude," his buddy yelled as he pulled him back, "don't be doing that. He's a good guy."

Five seconds later, the wasted guy was fast asleep.

* * *

People asked me all the time why I gave up my Saturday evenings to drive drunks home. Sure, I made a few bucks in tips and got to drive some pretty nice cars—the black 2002 Mercedes S500 with wood trim and stone Nappa leather interior was easily the sweetest ride. The feeling of helping people avoid DUIs and maybe saving some innocent lives had its merits, too. But all that pales before the real reason I put on my volunteer-driver badge each week: women.

Like the time volunteer Robert Stevens, a truly gung-ho driver who typically heads out every weekend, got to pick up a 21-year-old blonde and two friends from a college toga party. Before long, the fuel light prompted Stevens to stop at an Arco station. While there, the girl's friends went into the market for beer, leaving Stevens and the toga girl alone in the car.

"Do you mind," she suddenly said, "but this thing is killing me."

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