Sober Rovers give drivers a break when they’ve been out
On a late Saturday night before Halloween, Bradley Harvey turns off his 49cc GoPed scooter’s high-pitched sound. He sits waiting on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, and it’s soon apparent he’s a local celebrity of sorts. Thirty minutes before the bars close, people begin to flood the streets. Some are drawn to Harvey, curious, scrutinizing him with incredulous expressions as though he is an apparition.
“Are you a Sober Rover?”
Harvey nods, a “Yes, it’s really me” smile on his face as people extend their hands wanting to touch this man they’ve only heard about. Harvey’s been a Sober Rover for eight months and relishes every chance to get out on the town, meet people and keep some of them out of trouble. A little bit of salesmanship doesn’t hurt either, Harvey said.
“Wow, I didn’t think you were real, man,” one said.
The exchanges are spirited but brief. Harvey hands out business cards and the people wander off, shouting to their friends “He’s a Sober Rover,” satisfied to have taken part in an urban legend.
Harvey’s job as a Sober Rover is simple: If you’re too drunk to drive, he’ll drive you home — in your own car. Besides the ability to drive a variety of vehicles, Harvey said a rover’s most important skill is to be relaxed and personable with people. He’s given rides to a whole spectrum of people, from students and construction workers to lawyers and retirees. A little bit of everyone, Harvey said.
A man dressed like a baseball player walks up to Harvey — judging from the bleary eyes, a Bellingham Ty Cobb maybe — and when he learns that Harvey is indeed a Sober Rover and not in a costume, he’s overwhelmed.
“You’re a savior.”
Harvey takes this compliment in stride, telling the man all he needs is proof of insurance, then they can be on their way.
“That’s how it’s done,” Harvey said. “It’s easy.”
Bringing them home safely
Harvey is only one member of a small posse of Sober Rovers. J.R. and Xan Johnson started Sober Rovers from their home more than two years ago. October 22 was the company’s second anniversary. J.R.’s and Xan’s business is to get people and their vehicles home after they have been drinking alcohol and are over the legal limit to drive.
Every rover charges a $2 pick-up fee plus $5 a mile for the first ten miles before dropping to $4 after that. J.R. and Xan said the average cost within the Bellingham city limits is $15.
J.R. said the idea came to him after he got a DUI in 2000. He’d drank two beers and blew slightly over 0.08 percent blood alcohol level after a police officer pulled him over. In the process of defending himself, he discovered that all kinds of people get DUI tickets. He asked himself why doesn’t it resonate with people that they shouldn’t be driving when drinking.
“That’s when I got the idea that maybe if they had a designated driver they’d take advantage of it,” J.R. said.
How far can a good idea get you?
What makes the idea novel also makes it challenging. Because a lot of business comes through word-of-mouth, J.R. said he gets the sense that people perceive Sober Rovers as an urban myth.
J.R. didn’t have any background in business before starting the company with $15,000 he raised from local partners. His bachelor’s degree is in theater, but he figures he’s earned an honorary degree in business. He has built the business to include a four-person staff with three scooters. It’s been more than a year since he rode a scooter himself, and sometimes he misses the camaraderie.
“You got the yellers, the sleepers, the pukers and the criers,” J.R. said. “Sometimes there can be real funny moments, but there can be some real scary moments too.”
He said there isn’t a template for what he’s doing, and he’s had to learn through trial and error to find out what works and what doesn’t.
J.R. said the designated driver for hire is a hard concept to sell to the public. Getting a new idea to resonate with people is difficult enough, but trying to get a new idea to resonate with an impaired person can be even more difficult he said, joking that the drunk market is the toughest demographic to keep on point.
“After a couple of pitchers they forget all about us,” J.R. said.
Sober Rovers’ primary advertisements are flyers posted in the bathroom stalls of bars to keep potential customers on point. J.R. said Bellingham bar owners are an immense help — they not only let him post flyers, but some even call him when someone needs help getting home.
Establishing connections in the city has not been as easy as J.R. thought it would be. He said some of the obvious relationships he expected with institutions like the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving have not materialized. Xan said there’s a perception that nonprofits can only help other nonprofits, and the distinction between profit and nonprofit is a frustrating impediment for them.
J.R. and Xan were once castigated for starting the business. J.R. said a “zealot” once called to tell him that people would turn against him when they realized that they’re trying to make a profit.
“Just because it’s a noble service shouldn’t mean that it has to be a nonprofit,” J.R. said.
While he was surprised by this challenge to his motives, it was the motors he was initially concerned about. He worried that the loud motor, which sounds about like a leaf blower, would cause trouble for the company. He found that fear also never materialized — in fact, people are starting to recognize the sound of his scooters.
“It’s the sound of saving lives,” he said.
J.R. and Xan also ran into difficulty when they tried marketing prepaid cards to students. The PTA and other social organizations were reluctant to embrace the service. The service was as controversial as giving high school kids condoms.
“It was like, are you enabling my kids?” J.R. said.
Despite setbacks like these, J.R. remains upbeat about the experimentation process and his business’s potential. He implemented a pilot program at the downtown bar The Grand where people can buy a breathalizer for $2 to find out if they’re above the legal limit. People are buying them, but he doesn’t know how much it’s working. He said he’s looking forward to getting a second round of funding next year so they can get a storefront downtown.