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Designated driver services keep drunks off the road but put strangers in your car

If you drive to a Super Bowl party and celebrate too much, have you thought about what’s going to happen when you’re ready to leave?

The most likely scenario: A sober party-going friend will drive you home in his or her car. And if you’re at a bar without any friends, you can call for a cab. But how would you feel if you come back for your car only to find a cluster of parking tickets blanketing the windshield? Or even worse: Your car isn’t where you left it because it’s been towed or stolen.

Red Nose knows

To ensure that both you and your car arrive home safely, some cities have a “Red Nose.” Named after “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” who guided Santa’s sleigh one foggy Christmas Eve, the “Red Nose” program is a “Judgment-Free Zone” -- that is, it neither condones nor condemns drinking. Instead, it provides a pair of cabbies, volunteers or professional drivers to drive both you and your car home.

designated driver servicesThe cost is about double cab fare because you’re paying for two drivers, but for many partygoers it’s worth the price. And it’s far better than being arrested for DUI.

Nez Rouge

“Red Nose” is beginning to catch on. New York City’s pilot program, which was in effect during the recent Christmas holiday, handled 2,133 calls, according to organizer Fernando Mateo, who hopes to expand it to include other holidays.

In Canada, with its large French-speaking population, the “Nez Rouge” program has been operational for 30 years with more than a million volunteers having driven home nearly two million impaired drivers and their passengers, according to National Development Program Coordinator Marie-Chantal Fortin.

At this time, the only year-round program in the United States seems to be BeMyDD, short for Be My Designated Driver. The transportation service has multiple uses, including parties and business use – and of course designated drivers for the intoxicated. It operates in numerous cities and can be found at BeMyDD.com.

Handing car keys to a stranger

But handing your car keys to a stranger can sometimes go very wrong. Are auto insurance companies happy to ride along with Red Nose? “I suppose that these companies would rather have someone else drive your car instead of you getting behind the wheel when intoxicated,” says Loretta Worters, spokesperson of the Insurance Information Institute, which represents the industry. “But there’s always a ‘however.’”

The “however” is that both car owners and those who drive their cars home run some risks with this arrangement.

“This is a red-flag issue,” warns San Diego attorney Robert Rodriguez, who chairs the American Bar Association’s Automobile Law Committee. The legal concept, Rodriguez says, is known as “permissive user.”

When you’re intoxicated and give your keys to someone else, you could be paving the way to an insurance nightmare. Just how much protection you would have varies from state to state. Some auto policies extend coverage to any occasional, licensed driver who has your permission to drive your car. Other policies rein in the definition of who will be insured while driving your vehicle.

Policies that cover permissive users typically cover anyone who you allow to operate your vehicle as long as you have given the driver permission to do so.  However, to reduce your car insurance rates, some insurance providers will reduce your coverage:

  • One reduction is a step-down provision that will lower your liability limits to state minimum amounts for others who drive your vehicle, even if you pay for higher limits for yourself. 
  • Another way is to restrict your physical damage coverage so that collision and comprehensive coverages will apply only to listed drivers. Thus, if someone else drives your car and crashes, it would not be covered.
  • And then there are “named driver” policies that cover only listed drivers.  This means even permissive users would not be covered by any portion of your policy.

“Our insurance policy includes coverage for our volunteers,” says Fortin. BeMyDD declined comment, and Mateo said his program works with a professional car service, which presumably has insurance.

Aggressive cabbies

Even after downing a few drinks, some car owners may still feel more qualified to drive their own cars than a New York City cabbie. A recent survey by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission showed that more than half of respondents said that their experience was no better than average and 12 percent rated it as “poor.” Among the most common complaints, 29 percent said that cabbies drive “too aggressively,” while 27 percent said that drivers don’t speak English or know where they are going.

“We did not approve this [Red Nose] program,” notes commission spokesperson Allan Fromberg.

'The human savings'

If an accident occurs when a Red Nose driver is behind the wheel, there could be legal wrangling over who’s going to cover the bulk of the damage, even if both the car owner and designated driver have insurance. Did the intoxicated car owner know what he or she was doing when they gave their key to the driver, or will he or she deny responsibility after they sober up?

Thus far, all three programs – Red Nose, Nez Rouge and BeMyDD – seem to be working without any problems. One reason for this assurance: Courts in both countries seem to feel that it is smart to keep drunk drivers off the road.

“Fewer DWIs mean that the city saves money, and so do insurers,” says Mateo. And, when you add up the cost of tickets, accidents, court appearances and, in certain instances, jail time, those savings could total millions of dollars, he says.

But more important, says Rodriguez, is the human savings.

“At the end of the day, a court would be inclined to side with a service that saves lives, and is not going to penalize the companies or groups which do it,” he says. “As for the drivers, they made a smart decision.”

More from Ed Leefeldt here

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