By Terry Duffy
"It's all about being responsible."
So commented Mike Mulé, owner of Designated Drivers of Buffalo, earlier this week.
A locally owned and operated transportation solutions company created with the intent of providing a reasonable and responsible alternative to the problem of drinking and driving, Designated Drivers can be best described as the solution to one's finding a safe way home after a night out. It's particularly so in areas with transportation challenges - Buffalo-Niagara with its limited public transit offerings plus current lack of Uber being a case in point.
Eight years in operation, Designated Drivers offers a practical solution.
Clients who are signed on with the Designated Drivers program (be they corporate entities or bar/restaurants) are able to provide what could best be called a chauffeured ride arrangement for their clients or patrons who may have had too much to drink and should not be behind the wheel.
When contacted, Designated Drivers will dispatch a trained and certified driver team whose sole purpose is the transport of the customer and his or her vehicle home safely.
"We do a background check; we put them though our extensive training program, as well," Mulé said of the Designated Driver teams. "(New drivers) typically won't be able to drive the customer's car for the first month that they're working with us. We have the flexibility (at the onset) to keep them as chasers, till they learn the system, how the product works, how to do all the paperwork, and basically how our business runs."
"Then we pick the best, customer service-wise to ride with the customer," he said, adding that drivers are trained for all types of vehicles.
When dispatched, the assigned lead driver (or chauffeur) will transport the customer in his or her own vehicle to the residence. The second driver then follows to the designated drop-off address to pick up the first.
And the client and vehicle are home safely.
"It's not encouraging alcohol consumption, it's simply saying, if you have too much, don't drink and drive. It's that simple," Mulé said to a group of local bar owners who are in the process of bringing such a program to Niagara County. "Look, I was a bartender, managed restaurants and I saw first-hand people drink and drive for no other reason than that they wanted their car. (They say), 'I want to go home; I need it for work the next day; I don't want to get tickets; I don't want it vandalized.' "
But they also do not need to become another undesired statistic of DWI.
"Look, drinking and driving is a huge issue. This is a direct effect of how to solve a problem," Mulé said.
He went on to explain the Designated Drivers setup to the bar owners.
Bars, restaurants (and others such as social clubs, etc.), sign on as a client with Designated Drivers for an annual fee of $299 per year.
Individual memberships are available to the public for $99 annually.
The business clients are then provided a host of informational/promotional materials on the ride offering to share with their customers. Patrons of these establishments who become in need of a safe ride home can then contact Designated Drivers to arrange for a pick-up.
"The way we operate, we try to make it a very low-cost, convenient way of doing this," Mulé said. "Our prices are $25 to transport the (client's) vehicle and $3 per mile. That's from where we pick you up till we drop you off." There's no limit on mileage within the Buffalo metro area.
"We will drop off any additional guests that you have. We'll just accumulate the extra miles, based on wherever they're going. So if people come out together, they can split the cost. They can do that; we certainly recommend it," Mulé said.
He pointed out that certainly beats a pricey cab ride, not to mention a disastrous DWI arrest.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, this is a preventative type of service," Mulé said. "Drinking and driving is known as one of the most preventative crimes there is. This is just an awareness and education thing. Use it once; you will use it again. It's one of those type of things. It's convenient; it's easy; it's affordable; and it allows you to have a good time."
Designated Drivers covers a wide base in metro Buffalo - employing 40 driver teams servicing clients on a 24/7 basis. Its clients range from the Buffalo Bills and Sabres - yes, you can book a ride home from a Bills or a Sabres game - to a host of corporate entities, to nearly 50 bars in Erie County, including those in downtown Buffalo, on the Chippewa, Elmwood and Hertel strips, and out in the suburbs.
"We have a lot of relationships, we offer corporate accounts," Mulé said. "We offer this as a fringe benefit to businesses, to actually be able to say, 'Listen, we understand you are going out to these happy hours, these networking events, these golf outings; you're probably consuming alcohol. This plan we put into place for the employees; make sure you utilize it.' "
Mulé said Designated Drivers has expanded its reach into the Rochester metro market, providing service in that city Wednesday through Saturday with 15-16 drivers. And Designated Drivers is now seeking to branch out into Niagara County and hire 12-15 drivers. It aims to not only serve Niagara Falls establishments, but also those in the balance of the county, including points east, as well as in the Lewiston, Youngstown and Porter areas.
"The idea behind it has always been there," Mulé said of looking into Niagara County. "In the summer we have a lot of pick-ups, we do things like Artpark, etc., the casino runs. So we're already out here. It was just a matter of time."
"It's a great synergy, doing things out here, of what we can do," he said.
Joined by Designated Driver associate Kim Larson, Mulé visited with a number of local bar owners and associates at Somewhere, a food and drink establishment on Blairville Road in Porter. Attending the session were representatives from the Ontario House (Jug) and the Mug and Musket in Youngstown, plus the 3F Club, Brewed and Bottled and the new Gallo Coal Fire Kitchen in Lewiston.
Designated Drivers was invited by Somewhere proprietor Pat Stack, a retired Niagara Falls police officer and detective who certainly can relate to the dangers of DWI.
Stack went to explain his reasoning on why he is considering Designated Drivers for Somewhere.
"Look, we had our St. Patrick's Day, the shuttles. I started thinking about the cost (of providing the shuttles versus Designated Drivers). It makes a hell of a lot more sense. For $25 you get a ride home. If you live in Lewiston, it's going to cost you $34 with the mileage. It's a no-brainer."
Stack then compared using Designated Drivers to hiring a cab from Niagara Falls, where the driver usually clicks on the meter as soon as the cab departs the Falls. To a passenger seeking a ride in northern Niagara, that cost can be anywhere from $60 to $90 or more, he noted.
"I've considered a lot of things, even having my own bus," he said. "With this, not only is it cheaper, it looks good to the public that we're doing it. It's a win-win for bar owners."
Mulé also sees the program as a win-win for responsible drivers.
"I'm not one of those people that is preaching anti-alcohol," he said. "I enjoy it myself. It's just one of those things. If you want to be out and you want to be responsible, here is a great opportunity for you to be able to do that (and) without leaving your car behind.
"You can make reservations with us 24 hours a day. Give us a call."
Those interested in participating with Designated Drivers of Buffalo can visit online at www.ddobny.com or call 716-202-2222.
Representatives of northern Niagara-area bars and restaurants are pictured at an informational meeting this week with Mike Mulé and Kim Lawson of Designated Drivers of Buffalo. (Photo by Terry Duffy)