Metro Transit bus driver Lakeisha Neal ferried passengers home last New Year's Eve

It’s no secret that law enforcement will be on the lookout for drunken drivers on New Year’s Eve, one of the biggest party nights of the year.

But revelers who hit it too hard don’t have to risk getting a ticket and the hefty fines that come with a DWI. On Thursday, representatives from the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments, the Hennepin County and Ramsey County sheriff’s offices and the Minnesota State Patrol teamed up to encourage celebrants to use free public transportation for a safe ride home.

“You want to ride with us, you don’t want to get a ride home from them,” said Metro Transit’s Brian Funk while surrounded by police and sheriff’s deputies.

From 6 p.m. Saturday through 3 a.m. Sunday, rides on all Metro Transit buses, light rail and commuter trains will be free. So will those taken on Minnesota Valley Transit Authority and Anoka Transit routes.

“So far this year, the Minneapolis Police Department has arrested 697 drunk drivers,” said Steve Wuorinen, the department’s dedicated DWI enforcement officer. “This weekend is not the time to become number 698.”

This is the 20th year that J.J. Taylor Distributing and Miller Free Rides have underwritten the cost for the free rides that have kept scores of people in the Twin Cities and other cities across the country out of jail cells and the party rolling after the alcohol has stopped.

As a bonus, taking the bus can actually be quite fun, said Metro Transit bus driver Lakeisha Neal, who transported 252 partiers home while driving last New Year’s Eve. “They got on and said ‘Happy New Year. I said Happy New Year. They said this is like a party bus, yeah, as long as you don’t drink or do anything you’re not supposed to, I’ll get you to where you need to be at.”

The free-ride program, which has provided more than 1.3 million rides on New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, is one of many that have made a big impact in the effort to cut down on drunken driving, said Capt. Mike Hanson of the State Patrol. The key, he said, is that people need to make a decision to not drink and drive before heading out, and stick to it, whether that means using a designated driver, ride sharing or public transportation.

Overall, the total number of drunken driving arrests each year in Minnesota has been going down, dropping from more 42,000 in 2006 to 25,027 last year. But between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the numbers are not as impressive. The State Patrol recorded 2,502 DWI arrests last year compared with 2,537 in 2014 and 2,453 during the same period in 2013. This year, approximately 2,000 people have been arrested for DWI in Minnesota since Nov. 23, the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety said.

Those numbers are the reason public safety officials are asking the public to heed the warning to find a sober ride home.

“Decisions made under the influence of alcohol can have life-ending consequence,” he said. “Many of us have started our New Year’s off with the longest walk any officer has to make, and that is the one up to somebody’s front door to deliver a death notification.”

Diane Homa with Mothers Against Drunk Driving warns that passengers, too, must make smart decisions.

“Riding with somebody who is impaired is as dangerous as driving while impaired,” she said.

Uber says New Year’s Eve will be one of its busiest nights of the year, although its rides won’t be free. The ride-hailing service asks revelers to take the pledge to leave the keys behind if their celebration includes alcohol.

Uber has also instituted upfront fares, so riders will know how much they will pay when they request a lift. The service also reminds riders to check the car’s model and license plate before getting in and to ask the driver for identification.

 

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768

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