California Teen Volunteers Make Their Peers An Offer They Shouldn't Refuse: "You Drink. We'll Drive"

updated 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Friday night is in full swing around Hermosa Beach, southwest of L.A. The younger set has taken up its customary spots at the fast-food palaces, the movie houses, the mall parking lots. Talk turns to laughter, possibilities become plans and suddenly cars are screeching off toward canyons or beaches. But in a tacky office where the aging carpet is spotted with coffee, cola and pizza stains, a half dozen teens are lounging on worn couches, waiting for calls they know will come. And when the phone rings, Jennifer Dalven, 17, answers with a cheery, "Hello, Teen Saferides."

Dalven is the coordinator, and her colleagues are all volunteers with one mission: to drive tipsy teens home safely. Though the drinking age in California is 21, "it's easy for teenagers to get alcohol," notes Dalven. "A million places will sell it without checking IDs." In 1987, 3,259 teenagers died in alcohol-related traffic accidents nationwide—a figure that has taken a downward turn from 1982 casualties, which numbered 4,133. Authorities attribute the decrease to efforts of community organizations, including MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving) and Saferides, which is sponsored by Boy Scouts of America.

On this night, Dalven fields a call from two high school girls who figured they had gone far enough with three blitzed-out guys in Manhattan Beach. She dispatches volunteers Will Silverman and Hope Pauly, both 17, in a Toyota owned by Will's parents. They take along an emergency kit that includes a walkie-talkie, first-aid supplies, fire extinguisher, blanket, maps, rubber gloves, flashlight, flares and, oh yes, airsickness bags.

The rescuers make their pickup and home deliveries without incident, though at one girl's house, Mom is waiting angrily in the driveway. Sticking to Saferides' rule of total confidentiality, Silverman and Pauly make no attempt to intercede. "If their kids want to get in trouble," Will shrugs, "that's their business."

This Teen Saferides, which was the second of 500 in the U.S., was set up in 1983 under the auspices of the South Bay Free Clinic's Teen Advocate Center. It now has an annual $25,000 budget, raised mostly through donations. Saferides is on the job from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Friday and Saturday, taking about 15 calls a night from teens who have seen the phone number in ads and on posters. Business invariably picks up on the July 4th weekend, New Year's Eve and prom nights.

There are 15 adult supervisors, but the service is performed by 50 unpaid teens working four-hour shifts. These volunteers rarely call on Saferides themselves; when out partying, they tend to use the designated-driver system. Nor are they motivated by the tragic experiences of friends. Kids volunteer because "it's a cool thing to do," says Dalven. Each receives 15 hours of training in everything from self-defense to medical emergencies. They work in pairs and their own safety is paramount: They will not pick up adults, belligerent callers or teens obviously stoned on drugs, and Saferides' location is unpublicized to prevent boozy kids from appearing on the doorstep. In case of real trouble, the teams can radio the office, which will pass the call on to the police. But, notes Dalven, "There has never been a problem, thank God."

Saferides' critics have argued that the concept itself may encourage teens to drink to excess simply because they know they can call on someone else to get them home. But the group has found champions among local police. "Police can't enforce drinking laws all alone," says Detective James Acquarelli, who leads seminars for Saferides volunteers. Adds Lisa Fries, 28, a Saferides administrator: "If someone is using this service a lot, we try to refer him or her to help. It's true that we're only putting a Band-Aid on the problem, but we are saving lives."

Occasionally, the volunteers are disappointed when their altruism isn't appreciated. They tell of teens who pretend they're smashed in order to exploit Saferides as a free taxi service. But the majority of those who call are friendly and polite when assisted by peers or friends who don't judge them. "Girls who get drunk either get really quiet or they giggle," says Will Silverman, "while guys talk on and on about the party they've been to. They say, 'It was great; I bet you wish you were there.' And I'll answer, 'No, otherwise I couldn't be here to do the driving.' "

—By Dan Chu, and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles

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