It's a Free Ride, but Budget Cuts Create a Threat

By CHRIS BURRELL

Teenagers who found themselves in trouble and needing a free ride home this year telephoned the SafeRides hotline at nearly twice the rate they did last year, according to statistics released this week.

The figures compiled by SafeRides of Martha's Vineyard show ridership jumped sharply compared to the numbers from last year. In the 20 weekend nights that the teen-run service operated this year, drivers picked up and drove home 177 of their peers. On average, that's about nine young people ferried home each night.

Last year, the Island SafeRides group - the commonwealth's only chapter of the national program - operated for 33 nights and gave 139 teens a ride - a rate of about four teens a night.

Volunteer drivers also racked up significantly more mileage, logging a total of 1,361 miles this year, almost 50 per cent more than the 929 miles recorded last year.

The teens who run the program say the spike in ridership can't be blamed on any increase in drug or alcohol use by their classmates. Rather, they say that in the fifth year of SafeRides on the Vineyard, teenagers now trust the outfit not only to pick them up but, more importantly, to maintain their anonymity.

"People are starting to believe more in the confidentiality and view us not as a service that tells the police but as a service that's going to help people," said Ben Retmier, an 18-year-old high school senior who heads up the board of SafeRides.

But even as Vineyard teenagers are turning to SafeRides in greater numbers than ever before, the program faces a financial crisis. Its main source of cash - a $25,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Service Alliance - has been cut.

The agency that backed SafeRides for the last two years relies on state funds, which have been drying up thanks to the state budget deficit.

"I'm not willing to close the door on it," said Pam Carelli, the founder of the SafeRides chapter on the Island, an operation that has traditionally focused more on its mission of helping young people than on raising funds.

Now, Ms. Carelli said, she is looking to the community to support SafeRides and its annual budget of roughly $65,000.

What's at stake is a service that offers teenagers a free ride home on weekend nights. SafeRides - a national program which is sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America - started up on the Island five years ago in a year that began with the tragic car accident in which a high school senior died. Alcohol was ruled a factor in that accident, but the young people who run SafeRides argue that alcohol and drugs are only one reason that teenagers pick up the phone for a ride.

"They might call if they're just in an uncomfortable situation," said David Holmberg, a high school freshman who volunteers at SafeRides.

Edgartown police chief Paul Condlin believes the SafeRides service provides a huge benefit for the Island. "Obviously, I don't want to see a kid under the influence," Chief Condlin told the Gazette this week. "But I'd rather have them driven home by somebody with that service than trying to thumb home or get behind the wheel while they're under the influence."

While the program is not formally connected to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, it enjoys the full backing of its principal, Peg Regan.

"It's a great organization, a kid-to-kid service that allows kids to get home safely," said Mrs. Regan.

But despite the support from some corners, SafeRides consistently faces operational challenges and even some criticism. Recruiting volunteers has always been problematic, especially because it means asking both teenagers and adults to sacrifice a weekend night.

For the teenage dispatchers and the adult chaperone, it means sitting at the command post until almost 3 a.m., watching movies, sipping sodas and waiting for the telephone to ring. Columbia TV in Edgartown has donated its space for the last five years to function as a makeshift communications center for teens in need.

The drivers work in two-person teams, one male and one female. Mr. Retmier drove more nights than he cares to count and many miles in a 1994 Ford Explorer. "There were a lot of Chilmark calls," he said wearily, thinking back to the busy winter and spring.

The rough winter weather prompted Ms. Carelli to cancel the service for several nights, but the main reason SafeRides can't roll as frequently as some teens might want is the shortage of drivers. The main reason for the thin ranks of driving candidates is a statewide curfew that keeps 16 and 17-year-olds from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. That law means SafeRides cab recruit volunteer drivers only from the few seniors who have already turned 18 by November or December.

The Vineyard SafeRides group is remarkable because it has lobbied to change that law, convincing state Rep. Eric Turkington to draft legislation that would let town police chiefs waive the curfew for SafeRides drivers who are 17.

The bill is still pending in Boston, but Vineyard students went back to testify in April before the joint committee on public safety. Now, they are facing some flack back on their home turf, where two police chiefs have questioned granting the waivers.

According to West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey and Tisbury police chief Theodore Saulnier, the law could put them in the hot seat and create more of a risk for teens than a safety net.

"It places an onus on the town and the police chief. I have concerns over placing that much power in the hands of a police chief," Chief Saulnier told the Gazette last winter.

Police chiefs on the Island will have to reach a unanimous decision about whether to waive the curfew for young drivers, who would need to permission to drive across all Island towns in order to do their work.

Chief Toomey was also skeptical about the safety of permitting young drivers to transport peers who are intoxicated. But three years ago, when the group first began lobbying for legislation to waive the curfew restriction, former Tisbury police chief John McCarthy pointed out that in almost two decades, SafeRides chapters elsewhere in New England had posted a clean safety record with no accidents while giving their peers a ride.