Free Ride

Ride Program Helps Keep Streets Safe

Erik Stearns is an auto recycler by day and do-gooder by night. He offers rides and tows to drunk drivers through a nonprofit.

Erik Stearns, owner and partner of Dick's Auto in Findlay, Ohio, has seen his share of "ugly events." As an auto recycler who also operates a tow truck company, Stearns has witnessed the aftermath of bad accidents and fatal crashes. So he didn't hesitate when asked to participate in the community's Safe Ride Home program.

"This was my chance to prevent a tragedy," he said. "I could be saving the life of a family member or friend [by preventing] an accident with a drunk driver."

That was in 2003. Now Safe Ride Home is officially a non-profit organization, as of 2010, and Stearns serves as vice president. The man who originally approached him, Sgt. Mike Cortez of the Hancock County Sheriff's Office, is president.

"The first year that we [volunteered our services], on New Year's Eve, we took 23 people and their vehicles home," said Stearns. "This past New Year's Eve, we took 155 people home, but only two to three cars. They didn't need them towed."

The Safe Ride Home program is a free service to transport intoxicated people and their vehicles from a bar or party to a home or hotel. The rides are one-way only.

The first year, Dick's Auto ( worked alongside other tow companies to get everyone home. The second year, it was Dick's Auto and a local cab company. Today, Safe Ride Home is provided by two towing companies: Dick's Auto and Ed's 24 Hour Service.

"This will be our ninth New Year's Eve," explained Stearns, "but since we've attained nonprofit status, we're branching out to other holidays and events. This past Thanksgiving, we transported 96 people the night before the holiday. Now we're getting ready for St. Patrick's Day. After that, we'll be working on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. We're also offering a Safe Ride Home after community events, as well."

Dick's Auto pays its employees overtime to staff the office on Safe Ride Home nights. It uses three dispatchers in the office and eight or nine drivers, from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. for New Year's Eve. The business uses a combination of rented 15-passenger vans and tow trucks. The Safe Ride Home organization reimburses Dick's Auto for the van rental and fuel but essentially, it's a charitable donation by the auto recycling / tow company.

Safe Ride Home prints t-shirts, which it distributes to servers at area bars and restaurants on holidays. The t-shirts advertise that a Safe Ride Home is available, and where to call.

"[Dick's Auto] doesn't get a huge advertising benefit out of it," noted Stearns. "Really, we do it because it's a good community service. We see the aftereffects of drinking and driving on a regular basis in our line of work."

Plans for the program include Stearns investing in at least one 15-passenger van of his own. "Maybe this year, if we can raise the funds," he said.

Since Safe Ride Home is nonprofit, donors may make tax-deductible contributions toward the program. Donations are accepted at Safe Ride Home, 4404 Township Road 142, Findlay, Ohio 45840.

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