WINNEBAGO COUNTY - For decades, people who indulge in one too many drinks on New Year's Eve have been able to call the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office for a ride home. But, that won't be the case this year. Sheriff Gary Caruana suspended the New Year's Eve Ride Home Program on Wednesday, due to budget cuts.
"We're really down in our patrol division, and we're down throughout the department, so that was pretty much the catalyst," Sheriff Caruana explained.
Usually, four deputies are tasked with giving the free rides. They'll patrol the streets this New Year's Eve instead. The move also prevents the department from having to call in an extra dispatcher. Caruana estimates it will save around $2,500.
"I'm looking at every area that we can either cut or save money and have value added back to the department," said Caruana.
Caruana adds that use of the service has declined in recent years. In 2014, deputies drove 54 people home. Two years ago, only 38 people requested rides. And last year, just 25 people called for a ride.
"So I figured maybe this will be an area we'll be able to save some money on, and not have such an impact on the public," said Caruana.
Caruana believes the program isn't as popular anymore thanks to ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. Josh Ragsdale, who manages RBI's Sports Bar in Rockford, says it's something he's noticed too.
"We've had an Uber surge before," said Ragsdale, "Several of them out picking people up at one time."
Ragsdale says many area bars now offer New Year's Eve pub crawls. During those, a bus takes partygoers from bar to bar, so they don't have to drive.
"We have a couple buses that run between RBI, District and Onyx," Ragsdale explained. "So you can Uber here, you can pick up a bus, and you can barhop then throughout the night on the bus, and then you can Uber home. So we promote that very strongly."
Caruana says, overall, he believes more people are understanding just how dangerous drinking and driving can really be.
"I think people are more cognitive of the fact of, hey look, there's a lot of enforcement out there and we don't want anybody to get hurt," said Caruana.
The Sheriff adds that it's a good idea to download the Uber and Lyft apps on your phone before you head out to your New Year's Eve celebration.
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