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VOL. 42 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 9, 2018

Long-ago DUI offender helps keep others safe

State fatality rate falling. Are Uber, Lyft the reason?

By Whitney Clay

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Uber driver Larry Randle hopes St. Patrick’s Day revelers will call him instead of risking their lives and the lives of others. Tennessee is one of 13 states nationally with fewer alcohol-related deaths from 2015 to 2016.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

It was a warm Tennessee night in April of 1992 when 23-year-old Larry Randle got into his maroon Ford Thunderbird – the first car he ever owned – and drove a few miles to a friend’s house in his hometown of Martin, Tennessee to have a few beers and watch a basketball game on TV. He left around midnight to drive home, and just as he was pulling up to a stoplight he saw flashes of blue in his rearview mirror.

The police officer, who said Randle’s car had been swerving, administered a breathalyzer test and asked him to walk a straight line. Randle was arrested for DUI and spent 48 hours in jail, a terrifying experience.

“I had never been in trouble,” says Randle, now 48. It was his first and only DUI. He had to pay close to $1,000 in fees and fines, was forced to switch to costly high-risk insurance and had his driver’s license suspended for a year.

He was able later to request a restricted license so he could drive back and forth to his job on the assembly line at the Hubbell Lighting factory before returning to college at UT Martin.

The whole ordeal was devastating.

“I thought, ‘What have I done?” Randle recalls, “What have I gotten myself into?’”

Twenty-six years later, the Nashville insurance agent, married and a father of five, drives for Uber on nights, weekends and holidays to provide a safe alternative to drinking and driving. He’s now part of the solution.

Tennessee is one of only 13 states to show a decline in the number of drunk driving deaths from 2015 to 2016 – the most recent year on record – a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows.

The study, released last October, shows there were 223 traffic fatalities in Tennessee involving alcohol in 2016 compared with 251 in 2015, an 11.2 percent decrease.

In fact, Tennessee has seen drunk-driving fatalities steadily decrease over the last five years.

While there are no studies specifically examining the connection between the decline and ride share services in Nashville or Tennessee, local and state experts agree that they have played a significant role in the collaborative effort to reduce drunk driving.

“I do believe it’s because companies like Uber are growing even more across the state,” says Phaedra Marriott-Olsen, state program director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “When Uber first came here, it was strictly in Nashville. Now it’s breaking into other cities across the state and I think that’s a lot of it.

“I think a lot of it is our leadership in law enforcement. They are definitely taking DUI crashes very seriously and doing more sobriety checkpoints. That’s the great thing about having a great network of teams that are all playing together.”

A concerted effort on the part of the State Highway Patrol, which frequently collaborates with Metro Police and other state, city and county agencies, has yielded significant results.

“We look at traffic as a whole and we look at what’s causing the crashes in Tennessee, what we can do to address those problems and how can we be better at addressing those problems,” says Lt. Bill Miller, public information officer over all 95 counties for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

“When Colonel (Tracy) Trott took over in 2010, to be honest with you, we were not doing a good job of enforcing DUI laws. We were not – pure and simple,” Miller says.

“We’ve obviously increased education, we’ve increased enforcement and with that education and enforcement, it has also created awareness among drivers and motorists about taking an alternative means of transportation. Don’t get out and risk drinking and driving.”

Education includes an active social media presence. Miller says in addition to Facebook, the THP has eight Twitter accounts – one for each district – as compared with one five years ago. And that doesn’t include Colonel Trott’s or Commissioner David W. Purkey’s, Miller adds. Checkpoints are advertised (on the THP website) as required by law.

“We look at our predictive analytics,” he points out. “A checkpoint is not just something you throw up randomly on a whim and, ‘I’m going to have a checkpoint here at this location today at 2 p.m.’”

Instead, THP uses software developed with IBM that looks at historic data to pinpoint high-risk areas at a certain time of day. Last year, the Highway Patrol made that technology available free of charge to all 95 sheriff’s departments in Tennessee.

In 2014, Miller developed a promotional vehicle that’s half taxi, half patrol car.

“We take it everywhere we can – to Titans’ football games to Tennessee Vols’ games to Predators’ hockey games – anywhere we can sit this car outside and have it visible,” he says. “Our message, basically, is choose your ride or we will choose it for you.”

The Tennessee Highway Safety Office reaffirms that directive with its Booze It & Lose It campaign. Signs with that message flash in neon as motorists travel on highways across the state.

Other Highway Patrol efforts to reduce overall fatalities include a Traffic Incident Management facility, which includes a mock two-lane road, four-lane road and an intersection where troopers can investigate simulated accidents and devise strategic plans to help avoid a secondary crash in real-life situations.

Saturation Patrol is another tact that simply means that troopers have zero tolerance for any traffic violation they witness. Often, even if a drunk driver isn’t swerving, they will be identified when they are stopped for a headlight being out or running a stop sign, for example.

Restaurant and bar owners are also integral to the overall effort. Greg Adkins, CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, says Lyft is represented on the board and adds the company will place promotional cards in various bars and restaurants offering free rides for first-time users.

During Nashville Restaurant Week in January, Lyft offered two free rides worth as much as $5 each for new users and 15 percent off a round-trip ride to any participating restaurant to current users, says Makenzy Davis with Sheridan PR, which represents Nashville Originals, the sponsor of the annual event.

There’s a big push to encourage customers to take Uber or Lyft at the onset, before waiting until they’ve already been drinking to decide whether they should drive home or not.

“You’re not making good decisions at that point,” explains Adkins, adding the better choice for patrons is to not drive in the first place.

“For me, personally, and I’m in the business, we don’t either,” he says. “There’s too much to risk. With it being so easy and convenient and safe and reliable, it just makes sense. And doing it on the front end, I think people are being smarter about it. It’s almost like a cultural shift.”

A recent Uber study shows its busiest times are not during the morning or afternoon rush hours, but late at night, on weekends and during holidays.

Uber has partnered with MADD nationally and created a Designated Rider campaign with commercials aired particularly at celebratory times such as New Year’s and Super Bowl Sunday to encourage revelers to leave their keys at home.

“It means planning ahead, making smart choices, using an alternative,” explains Uber spokeswoman Jodi Kawada Page. “It means empowering yourself to be a designated rider.”

While Tennessee has shown a decline in drunk driving fatalities, the nation has not. The NHTSA study shows 10,497 people lost their lives in alcohol-related crashes in 2016 compared to 10,265 in 2015 – a 1.7 percent increase.

Marriott-Olsen, who has been with MADD for 18 years, adds the organization is her “personal story every single day.” On Mother’s Day weekend 1996, while living in Missouri, she was driving home from a concert with friends when a drunk driver hit her head-on leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.

Marriott-Olsen works tirelessly to encourage people to make a choice other than getting behind the wheel of a car intoxicated. Ride share services, which became available about five years ago in Nashville and have expanded their reach to include much of the state, offer a viable alternative.

Chris Zimmer, 46, a local hair stylist, says he always takes a ride share when going to a restaurant, bar or concert downtown.

“I don’t trust any parking lot to hold my car (overnight) safely,” Zimmer says, “and I also think if I have my car I have a higher probability of actually driving home, and I think that’s the scariest part.

“When you’re intoxicated, or even if you’ve had one or two drinks, you feel confident that you’re fine, but your vision could be impaired, your ability to react could be impaired. There’s no reason to chance getting into an accident or getting a DUI.”

And getting to that .08 percent blood alcohol content can be easier than it seems.

“Point zero eight on me could be something totally different on you,” notes Brenda Jones, law enforcement administrator for the Tennessee Highway Safety Office. “Most people, when you pull them over for impairment, the first thing they say is ‘I only had two beers,’ but sometimes two beers is enough to take you to .08”

Height, weight, what the person has had to eat that day and what type of alcohol they’re drinking can all factor in, she adds.

“The majority of my Uber riders, I pick them up at their home and then when I pick them up at the restaurant or bar, I’m taking them back home,” Randle says. “Seventy-five, 80, maybe even 90 percent don’t even think about driving.”

And while the cost of a ride share service can potentially be a deterrent, particularly during surge pricing, it is cheaper than the alternative.

“I would talk to them (customers) in conversation,” Randle adds, “and they would say, literally, ‘I’d rather take an Uber than drink and drive and get a DUI.’”

A DUI can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 when fines, lawyers’ and court fees are figured in, experts say. Then there’s the cost of more expensive car insurance and possible lost wages.

While meeting on a recent Saturday afternoon at a West End Starbucks, Randle, a slightly built, soft-spoken man, proudly shows off his spotless 2013 charcoal gray Nissan Altima in the parking lot, although he admits the rain had kept him from washing it as often as usually does – several times a week.

Dressed in a navy blazer, oxford blue shirt and jeans, his beard neatly trimmed, the father of five daughters ages 12-24 happily spends several hours sharing stories from his experiences as a driver.

He remembers one night being on Broadway when a man had used his inebriated friend’s phone to order an Uber to take him home, much to the friend’s surprise.

After initially resisting a little, saying he’d prefer to stay downtown, he got into Randle’s car and promptly fell asleep in the back seat. Thirty minutes later, he was safely home.

It’s not unusual on weekend nights and holidays for Randle, one of the customer- rated top Uber drivers in the city, to encounter riders who’ve had a little too much to drink. Just for those occasions, he keeps scented Hefty garbage bags in the seat pockets. That can also save customers a $150 (maximum) clean-up fee.

Driving late nights, weekends and holidays, including upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, is a calling of sorts for Randle. “I’m always talking to people, whether they’re my age or younger, whoever allows me to share with them. Drinking and driving – that’s not the way to go.”