Students at New Trier Township High School who go out on weekends to party with friends, maybe even drink, have Safe-Rides to get them home safely and discreetly late at night.
According to one adult supervisor, who asked to keep his name out of print because, as he put it, "the kids do all the work, I can't take any credit," the Safe-Rides program has prevented car accidents with teen driviers.
"As long as the Safe-Rides program has been running in the New Trier district, there have been no fatalities or series accidents on the nights we were operating," he said. "There's something about this program that seems to be clicking."
Winnetka's police chief, Patrick Kreis, said he can't recall any serious car accidents involving New Trier teens that occured on a weekend while the program was operating. Nor has the Safe-Ride program required police involvement.
"I've had nothing but good encounters with Safe-Rides and the way it's run," Kreis said. "There's been no instance where the function of Safe-Rides has presented any problems."
The program is run entirely by students, with some adults supervising operations at Safe-Rides' base at the Kenilworth Union Church. When a call comes in, students record the caller's information and cross reference it with information from the New Trier student directory to confirm the caller is indeed a New Trier student going to their home address. Students are driven home one at a time.
Part of the program's appeal is not only reliability, but also discression. The Safe-Rides call center knows who's calling the service, but that information isn't shared with the school or police, nor does the program ask riders why they need a ride.
All volunteers undergo training before joining the program, drivers use their own car for transporting students and all trips are performed by a boy/girl pair with one person driving while the other navigates.
Ridership varies by night, with about 25 rides on a slow night, and upwards of 60 rides on more active nights. Since students are picked up one by one, it's not necessarily the fastest way to clear out a party.
According to a New Trier spokesperson, Safe-Rides isn't affiliated with the school, though it's only available to New Trier students. Some details are available online, but Savannah Hubly, 18, a senior at New Trier, says most kids learned about it by word-of-mouth.
"We've had it for so long, we can't imagine life without it," Hubly said. "I think it really is [popular]."
Are the kids drinking?
One New Trier senior, who volunteered for the program her sophomore and junior year of high school said, "It's completely safe." The student asked to leave her name out of print to protect her privacy at school.
The student said it's popular among teens who are looking for a ride home after social functions.
"I'd say 90 percent of the people who use it are coming from parties," she said. "The point of Safe-Rides is to provide kids a way to get home safely, and I think it's safe to assume some of the people who needed a ride home could not operate a vehicle safely."
Safe-Rides first emerged in Stanford, CT almost 30 years ago when a fatal drunk driving incident inspired a teen to create a service that safely transports kids home.
When the program reached New Trier, it raised some questions about its effect on underage drinking, but the Boy Scouts maintain it's designed to provide a safe service kids can rely on during the weekend.
"The last thing we're doing is promoting illegal drinking," said Michael Hale, a scout executive with Boy Scouts of America Northeast Illinois Council. "We are about saving kids and providing safe opportunities."
"We'd rather err on the side of being safe," Hale added. "We take the kids straight home. We're not transporting them to other parties."
The program operates on Friday and Saturday nights, from about 10:30 p.m. to about 1 a.m., depending on call volume and only operates when school is in session. There are no Safe-Rides during holiday breaks or even before standardized testing — if the SAT is on a Saturday, there will be no Safe-Ride service Friday night.
Every few years, representatives from Safe-Rides meet with local police departments to update law enforcement on the program's operations. Winnetka's Chief Kreis is among the law enforcement officials keeping an eye on the program.
"It's the furthest thing from a party bus," he said. "If I would design a [teen transportation] system, these are the components I would want."