Most teens his age would spend their Friday and Saturday nights at parties, but Valencia High School alumnus Koren Young would gather with other Santa Clarita Valley youth, ready in case party-goers needed a lift home.
Young’s volunteer work, which started in the late 1990s, as well as those of generations before and after him, helped provide free, safe rides to more than 40,000 teens who felt unsafe to drive or ride with someone under the influence.
It was called the Safe Rides program.
On Saturday, dispatchers and drivers of the program offered their last night of operations as officials announced they are closing down the program indefinitely after 32 years of service.
“It’s a sad moment because it’s been a part of the community for so long,” said Young.
Several factors led to the decision to cease services, said co-founder Penny Upton. She and Betty Burke Oldfield founded the program in the late 1980s after six local teenagers died in alcohol-related collisions. Among the factors, she said, were the rising costs of insurance and restrictions on teenage drivers, competition among other rideshare services and “the phone wasn’t ringing anymore.”
“There’s been a definite change in the attitude behind drinking and driving,” said Upton. “I think it’s reversed now where it’s not cool anymore to think, ‘I got so wasted that I don’t know how I got home.’”
During the first 15 years of the program, the number of local teen fatalities related to drinking and driving dropped by 95 percent, she said. Other programs such as Every 15 Minutes, which challenge teens to think about safety in relation to driving under the influence, has helped reinforce the dangers behind the behavior.
The program’s longtime system of dispatching rides might have also played a role in receiving fewer calls, said Young.
“It would take a while for a car to get to the person,” he said. “It would take 15 to 20 minutes just to map out the route, then another 15 to 20 minutes just to get to the person. Other services are a lot quicker, but that was our system.”
At the age of 16, he started with Safe Rides as a dispatcher, flipping pages through Thomas Guide maps, answering calls placed by those in need of a lift, and mapping out routes for drivers. Part of the dispatch process involved communicating with SCV sheriff’s deputies, which alerted the volunteers of areas to avoid driving in for safety reasons.
Lauded by local government and state officials, Safe Rides provided volunteer opportunities for more than 5,000 teenagers and drove 400,000-plus miles to offer safe rides to thousands of SCV youth.
“I started out doing it for something to do on the weekends and I made lifelong friends,” said Young. “I hope that the high school students of today find other ways to get involved and give back to their community in Safe Rides’ absence.”
Upton said she is planning an event to recognize volunteers and reunite with past members to celebrate three decades of service.