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Free rides for drunks and their cars

In his 50 years in the towing business in Bradenton, Fla., Steve White has seen more horrific accidents than he'd care to remember, but there are some he can't forget. One was the night he showed up after two teenage boys had been drinking and got behind the wheel. Their cars crashed into one another, killing one boy and changing the other's life forever.

"The families showed up at the scene, and I realized I knew both kids," White recalls.

Such tragedies are why White started offering free tows and rides to intoxicated drivers in his town some 30 years ago -- efforts that eventually led to a multi-state program called Tow to Go, produced by The Auto Club Group Traffic Safety Foundation and Bud Light. The program offers free rides home to intoxicated drivers, regardless of whether they're AAA members, and free tows for their vehicles on certain holidays, including New Year's Eve.

The local AAA got wind of the idea because White kept bugging his AAA representative about it. Then a friend, another AAA towing contractor, mentioned it to a Budweiser representative while playing golf. The then-AAA Auto Club South soon teamed up with Bud Light. Now going into its 16th year, Tow to Go operates on major holidays in Florida, Georgia and western and middle Tennessee.

Although not available everywhere, similar programs have sprung up independently through AAA clubs in other parts of the country. AAA Northern California, for instance, offers the Tipsy Tow program in Northern California, Nevada and Utah. AAA Alabama offers Tow-for-Life. (See a list of participating AAA clubs.)

Free tow and a ride

The free rides and free tows are good for a certain number of miles -- up to 10 for Tipsy Tow and Tow to Go -- and the services are confidential.

"It's not set up as a member benefit," says Joanna Newton, spokeswoman of The Auto Club Group. "It's set up to protect everybody on the roadways."

One of the biggest reasons people get behind the wheel after drinking versus calling for a ride is they don't want to leave their cars behind, Newton says.

The programs also transport additional passengers besides the drivers if there's room in the tow truck, and they operate on other holidays, too. Besides New Year's Eve, Tipsy Tow, for instance, promotes its service on St. Patrick's Day, the Super Bowl, Cinco de Mayo and Halloween.

"Even though we will not promote our Tipsy Tow during all major holidays, we will still honor anyone's call who requests for a Tipsy Tow," AAA Northern California spokeswoman Cynthia Harris says.

Tow to Go in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee operates on those holidays plus Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and from Christmas Eve through 6 a.m. on New Year's Day.

You can't make a reservation, and you may have to wait a bit for the tow truck to arrive, depending on demand. "But we've never turned anybody away," Newton says.

The AAA clubs work with their tow companies and contract stations to gear up each holiday to meet the demand.

"It comes down to the call centers who work a third shift and those drivers," Newton says. "It's those individuals on the front lines who make the program possible."

No national tallies are available for how many rides the safe holiday towing programs have provided. But since The Auto Club Group started Tow to Go with Bud Light in 1998, it has removed more than 23,000 intoxicated drivers from the roads, Newton says. The first year the program started, it provided about 30 to 60 rides and tows during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, she estimates. This year, she says, organizers expect it to provide 1,000 to 2,000 rides during that week.

These programs are special

Restrictions vary by company and policy, but don't count on your car insurance to give you a free tow if you're drunk. Roadside assistance and towing coverage through car insurance is typically limited to instances when your car breaks down.

"They're usually pretty strict," says consumer analyst Penny Gusner. "With the ones you buy with your coverage, your car has to be disabled."

If a free safe ride and towing program isn't available in your area, then you're far better off leaving your car behind and calling for a cab than trying to drive after drinking. Your car insurance company might drop you if you get a DUI, and your rates are sure to skyrocket. Far worse, though, is the risk of hurting yourself or someone else.

Free safe ride and towing programs are growing. The Auto Club Group plans to expand the Tow To Go program eventually to the other eight states it serves. The AAA Auto Club South, which started the program, merged with the Michigan-based AAA club in 2011 and became The Auto Club Group, the largest AAA club in the country. Besides Michigan, the other states include Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wisconsin, most of Illinois and Minnesota and a portion of Indiana.

White is gratified to see Tow To Go take off. But that hasn't stopped him from continuing to offer free rides and tows out of his own pocket throughout the year. He does so locally to anyone who calls for help, holiday or not. He's seen too much death and mayhem to do otherwise.

"It just tears me up, and I want to do something to stop it," he says.

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