Driving Ms. Dazed

Photo by Jeanne RiceSeated near the front door of Gallagher's Pub and Grill in Huntington Beach, Kori Flechtner is wearing a white blouse that bares about an inch of golden midriff above her jeans. She's 27 with bright eyes and blond hair.

It's 1 a.m. on what is now Saturday morning, and the place is still jumping with boozing party people—one of whom stands directly in front of her playing air guitar to the band's "Mustang Sally." A moment later, one of his pals, also drunk, walks over and takes a seat next to Flechtner. He flirts a bit, then clumsily asks what she'd do with his phone number.

"I probably wouldn't call," she says, smiling.

"That's okay," he says as he gets up. "I've been rejected before."

The ironic thing is that Flechtner wants drunk guys to call. That's how she makes her living.

Flechtner is executive director of the Orange County chapter of Designated Drivers Association (DDA), a group with one purpose: get drunk drivers off the road.

The group exists for people who drive to bars but don't want to leave their cars behind so they end up driving home drunk. DDA provides another option—dispatching a pair of volunteers to the person's car, one of whom drives it home while the other follows behind.

DDA is new to OC—it launched Dec. 20—and despite recruiting heavily among friends, Flechtner is starved for volunteers and customers. On New Year's Eve, she had a dozen volunteers take 15 people home, but just three days later, on the night I acted as her partner, she had just three teams prowling Newport and Huntington bars and only one call.

That call came at 1:45 a.m., just minutes before Flechtner was going to send the teams home. It was from a girl at the Stag Bar in Newport Beach. She didn't think she or her two friends were sober enough to drive back to Huntington Beach.

Flechtner is the first woman to run a DDA program; the OC chapter is only the fourth in the country. Her work nets her $43,000 per year, with no benefits. Once a sales rep for a temp agency, Flechtner says she got tired of spending all day on the phone haggling with human resources people.

"I hated being the person that was always having to annoy other people," she says. "So I got out of it and into a nonprofit. The pay was kind of a shock, but it's more rewarding. I've driven drunk before, but never had an accident or DUI. I felt stupid about driving drunk."

We rolled up to the Stag a few minutes after the call came in and met the girl at the door. She immediately asked if they could stop for more alcohol on the way home. Flechtner sighed and told her DDA isn't a taxi service. Because there were three girls, DDA rules said Flechtner would drive and I would follow in Flechtner's car.

"We don't want people to plan to use us," says Flechtner. "But we're the last option for people who drink."

Police throughout the county made 12,000 DUI arrests last year. Despite that, 65 people were killed and nearly 2,000 people injured in alcohol-related car accidents.

Being a volunteer isn't so bad. After passing a routine background check and a breathalyzer test, two-person teams—usually male and female—hang out in Newport and Huntington bars, passing out fliers and drinking all the free water and soda they want. It's certainly more enjoyable than having to say the alphabet backwards during a field sobriety test.

Begun in Virginia in 1994, DDA has since gone nationwide. It has been successful in San Diego for the past couple of years. There, 15 to 20 volunteers a night take home 30-plus drunks.

Things aren't nearly that successful here. At least, not yet. Flechtner spends her weekend nights trying to get guys and girls in bars to give up their car keys. And sure, guys pay instant attention; whether they're actually listening is another matter. There are the looks guys give her, brazenly eyeing her from head to toe as she tries to hand out fliers in bar lines. There are the silly but seemingly endless flirtations—"You have amazing eyes." "Take care, gorgeous." And there's the standard, "So, if I call, will you drive me home?" That one never seems to get old.

And not every bar has received the message that DDA is here to help. Earlier that same night, we stopped by Malarky's in Newport. The expressionless doorman took one look at Flechtner and told her, "You can come in." But he barred me entrance, since that would disrupt the bar's delicate girl-to-guy ratio—despite the fact that Malarky's is one of Flechtner's 10 sponsor bars in Newport and Huntington, bars where badged DDA volunteers can ostensibly enter at will.

As if Flechtner doesn't already have enough trouble getting volunteers.

"There was this one guy who e-mailed me about possibly volunteering," Flechtner recalls. "We met and talked about the program. The next week, I e-mailed him, asking if he'd like to volunteer. 'No,' he said, 'but would you like to have lunch sometime?' What is that about?"

At least Flechtner only had to contend with exuberant girls during her sole Jan. 3 call.

"It must suck to be sober with all these drunks," the girl who called asked Flechtner as they got in the car.

"Actually, it's pretty entertaining," Flechtner said.

"Entertaining?" the girl asked. "We'll entertain you!" After dabbing Flechtner's face with glitter makeup, the girl cranked the volume on her car radio.

The girls had Flechtner park the car below an enormous Christian cross in a church parking lot off Delaware near some apartments. A few moments later, a guy pulled up to meet them.

"I think they had me drop them off at some guy's place," Flechtner said as she climbed back into her own car. "The girl told me that her mom gave her $40 for a taxi. So she gave me a $4 tip. That's a pretty good deal. But she was totally slurring her words the whole time. She was really drunk. I'm so glad we gave those girls a ride."

If you'd like to volunteer or just need someone to drive you home, please call toll-free (866) 949-SAFE.


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