Where I lived in central Minnesota there was a dirt road that dissected cornfields midway between Staples and Motley, a straight line that pretty much went from nowhere to nowhere. There was little traffic, a few farms and lots of flat horizon, so you could see somebody kicking up dust for miles. That was the point.

Everybody knew where it was, including, eventually, the county sheriff's department. Maybe that's because we simply called it: "The Drinking Road." The Drinking Road was both a destination, where young people sat on the hoods of cars and drank beer when they were too young or too broke for the bars, or a stealth exit from bar to home.

It was a long time ago, but for all I know it still exists, because in rural areas drinking and driving have long been considered commonplace, part of a culture where great boredom, loose liquor enforcement and great expanses can lead to unfortunate consequences.

"Don't worry, I'll take the back roads" was a pretty typical salutation at the end of the night.

Nationwide, more than half the traffic deaths happen on these roads and about a third of them involve drinking. With New Year's Eve approaching, several people in outstate Minnesota are working to change that.

One is Kathy McDonald, of Rush City, who has provided one-third of the expenses for Safe Cab rides in a several-county area for the past half-dozen years.

McDonald's family has owned McDonald Distributing Co. since the end of Prohibition. Sure, for a company that distributes Anheuser-Busch products, it's a sensible business decision, but those who know McDonald says she's also just doing what is right.

"Kathy has gone unnoticed," said Isanti County District Judge James Dehn, who helped found the Safe Cab program in 2005. "She's funded us and kept us going. She's one of the people who has been diligent in lowering DUIs" in rural counties. "She's just great."

Dehn recently interviewed DUI offender No. 1,000 in his courtroom. Since 1999, he has questioned convicted drivers during their plea hearings and had the results analyzed by University of Minnesota Duluth Prof. Rob Weidner. Questions included where the offenders had their last drinks. After seeing the initial statistics in 2004, Dehn gathered the bar owners and began the partnership to lower drunk driving.

The program has made Isanti County the best county in Minnesota over the last five years for reducing DUI arrests -- by 64 percent. It's been so effective, in fact, that participants have also partnered with the Minnesota Beer Distributors Association to spread the Safe Cab program to Pine, Chisago, Kanabec, Wright and Otter Tail counties.

A recent study by Weidner showed that, comparing the first and last observed time period, the percentage of those who reported becoming impaired at a bar had decreased by 24 percent. One of the Safe Cab participating bars has reduced the number of patrons getting DUIs by 83 percent.

Another participant, Loren Davis of the Cambridge Bar and Grill, is believed to be the first bar owner to be given an award by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Safe Cab gave just three rides the first month, but that has risen to nearly 3,400 trips, thanks to money provided by McDonald, bar owners and community groups.

That's great news for McDonald, who understands the loss often associated with drunk driving: She lost a daughter in a car accident, though alcohol was not involved.

"I always thought it would have been even more difficult, if alcohol had been involved," she said.

Even before she linked up with Dehn, McDonald had been working to educate young people to the dangers of drunk driving by bringing convicted drivers and victims to schools.

"It's especially difficult in rural areas because people rely on cars and don't want to leave them," McDonald said, "and you have to get over that good-old-boys attitude that they won't let someone bring them home.

"I'm just happy to help get the word out."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702