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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Imagine this scenario: a college freshman, new to the university, new to the area, and out with some new friends, finds himself at a house party miles from his residence hall.
He's had too much to drink and wants to go home, but he can't find his friends or doesn't want to ride with them. But he's uncomfortable, wants to remove himself from the situation and doesn't have money.
Now, thanks to a new University of Iowa Student Government-sponsored SafeRide program, there's an option that only requires a phone. Beginning this week, any UI student – regardless of gender – can snag a free taxi ride if they're in an unexpected or emergency situation on or off campus.
"A scenario that plays out a lot is a first-year student goes to a house party, and it's not an environment they want to be in," said UISG President Nic Pottebaum. "If they don't know how to get home, they can use this SafeRide program."
Here's how it works: A UI student calls the SafeRide number – 319-467-HOME – and a dispatcher verifies that he or she is a current and registered student by using the university database. A cab is dispatched, and once it arrives, the student shows a valid photo ID.
The student is asked to sign a SafeRide slip verifying student status, that it's an emergency and that their current registered address is in the UI phone book. Each student gets just one SafeRide per semester, so they also have to verify that they've not already used their free trip.
The cab then takes the student home or to a medical facility, depending on the need. Pottebaum said drivers will use discretion to call 911 or paramedics, if necessary.
The service is available between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. to students with current home addresses in the Iowa City/Coralville area. SafeRide cabs only do pickups in that zone, according to Pottebaum.
"We also can take one passenger who doesn't have to fill out a slip of paper – if they're both in an emergency and need to get home," Pottebaum said. "But if the driver feels the passenger is compromising the free ride home – like if there's a potential sexual assault – the driver will use discretion not to allow a passenger."
The UISG, partnering with the Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Studies to provide the service, contracted with Yellow Cab of Iowa City for the program's first year. The cost of the service, which will be paid for with student activity fees, will depend on its use.
UISG will get a monthly bill from Yellow Cab, which is charging a $3 entry fee and a $1 tip per ride, plus .25 per 1/9th of a mile for each trip, Pottebaum said. The cab company also will charge $50 for clean up costs, if needed.
The UISG has budgeted $40,000 for the program's first year, and Pottebaum said he hopes the cost doesn't exceed that. If it does, student leaders will "go back to the table," he said.
"And we are going to assess the program after the first year," according to Pottebaum, who said the UI took the blue prints for the service from other universities that have launched similar programs, like the University of Nebraska.
He said the UISG studied how those programs were implemented and what mistakes were made so the UI's launch is clean and successful. Nothing specific prompted the UISG to take up this project, Pottebaum said, just the knowledge that students can find themselves in unsafe situations late at night, some times while under the influence of alcohol.
Pottebaum gave two primary reasons for limiting rides to one per student per semester. First, he said, student leaders don't want their peers to rely on the service and repeatedly put themselves in dangerous situations.
"We want them to prevent it next time," he said. "Then there's the financial thing. We can't afford to give free rides all the time."
The program is meant to compliment the UI's Night Ride service, which has been providing a safe ride home to women via mini bus since September 2007. Nite Ride meets students for pick up between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday at the downtown bus stop south of the Pentacrest and Sunday through Thursday at any academic building, depending on the need.
The boundaries stretch from Summit Street on the east to Hawkeye Park Road on the west and from Highway 6 and Melrose Avenue on the south to Highway 6 and Foster Road on the north.
Nite Ride use has been steady in recent years. The total number of rides dropped slightly from 14,472 in 2009 to 12,700-plus in 2010 and 2011. It's back on track this year to be in the 14,000s with 7,367 rides through July, according to Kenneth Friedhoff, security coordinator for the UI Department of Public Safety.
October, February and April have been the busiest months for the Nite Ride program, according to UI public safety statistics going back to 2009.
Although there won't be as many trips with the SafeRide program, student leaders hope it will reach more people because it serves a larger geographic area and will pick up both men and women.
"It sounds awesome," said UI sophomore Meredith Olson, 19.
Olson said she used Nite Ride once last year to get home from downtown during a rain storm but often ends up at off-campus parties where Nite Ride is out of reach.
"I'll definitely use it," she said, "especially if it will come to me at another location."
UI sophomore Colleen Cann, 18, said she also used Nite Ride several times last year – mostly to get home from the bars or the library. She said SafeRide is a much more realistic way to keep people at off-campus house parties out of danger.
And, Cann said, it's nice that it's available for both genders.
"It's nice for the guys," she said. "I always felt bad that they can't go on Nite Ride."