Safe ride usage skyrockets over Montana’s Biggest Weekend

Casey S. Elliott
Tuesday, September 20, 2022
Need a lift?

A driver for the Free Sober Rides program waits for a customer at the corner of Montana and Bannack streets over Labor Day weekend in Dillon. The program offered almost three times as many safe rides to celebrants this year compared to last year. Christy Stauffenberg photo

Labor Day partiers enjoyed Montana’s Biggest Weekend responsibly this year, handing over their keys and utilizing the free sober rides available, officials say.

Though there were a few more driving under the influence citations this year compared to last year, there were no fatalities that were DUI-related, Dillon Police Chief Jeremy Alvarez said. The Dillon police cited three people for DUI through the weekend, and the sheriff’s office cited one person, according to DPD data. The DPD and the Montana Highway Patrol had one DUI each last year over that weekend.

“(The free rides program) is working out well. If we can get that many potential drunk drivers off the road, it’s just a huge benefit to our community, and keeping everybody safe. That’s what our goal is.”

The free program almost tripled the number of rides it provided year over year, DUI Task Force member Maria Emmer-Aanes said. The task force, Be the Change 406 Coalition, the Dillon Jaycees and Womack’s Printing all sponsored the program this year, which provided 823 free rides over the entire weekend. That far exceeds last year’s 321 rides.

Emmer-Aanes said the group had more drivers this year, and the entire campaign was “more cohesive,” with clear branding on the vehicles involved, banners, signs and scannable QR-code links all over town letting people know where to get a lift. There were two ride-pickup sites labeled with A-frame boards prominently visible to indicate where to wait for a ride.

“We worked with the city and the police to rope off the pick-up stations,” she said. “That was a big win.

“In some ways, we don’t want to incentivize people to drink more because they can get a ride home,” she added. “It’s getting real about the community and what it’s doing. Labor Day is a big weekend for a lot of people that they wait all year for and they’re going to party.”

DPD Law Enforcement Liaison Danielle Daman was one of the new drivers this year. She said she saw a similar program blossom in the Flathead area before she came to Dillon, and “I thought it would be fun.”

“It was fun for the experience alone and seeing how many people really enjoyed it versus the people that feel like they are forced to do it. Most people were very into it and very appreciative they didn’t have to walk home,” she said, adding she noticed the men in the groups downtown were more enthusiastic about it than the women.

“Those who turned away, I don’t know if it was because of the fact I was a female driver. Women are weird – we all know that,” Daman said.

Daman praised the program overall: “I think it’s great to keep people off the road, and I do think they really appreciate it. Myself, just living in town, I’d probably be the one to walk downtown, but by the time it came to walk home I’d be like, ‘oh, I don’t want to walk home.’ It’s nice it’s available.”

Alvarez said he thought all the activities had higher attendance than last year, despite any lingering disappointment about the lack of a carnival. He also noticed the crowds themselves were friendlier.

“For the most part, the first couple of nights were calm and collected. People were out and enjoying themselves, and they were very respectful to each other as well as to us. That was very nice to see after the pandemic – people getting along.”

“I’d say it was a very successful weekend overall – people celebrated appropriately, and we are thankful for all that,” he added.Thank you to the community for being that good Dillon neighbor, and having that good Dillon welcoming atmosphere.”

Organizers are hoping to work with Lyft and their app for next year’s free ride program. Emmer-Aanes said that rideshare company has a setup where it works with nonprofits through its Lyft app, which would streamline the whole process.

The task force is also looking for sponsors to help with the program, since all the new features this year put them way over budget.