Scooter Patrol Takes Drunk Drivers Home in Southern California

“Sir, turn your vehicle off!” Anthony Panzica hollers into the open driver’s-side window.

A man wearing a scraggly beard and a green St. Patrick’s Day necklace has passed out at the wheel of his white Econoline van. Encircled by a telltale cloud of beer stench, his head rises and falls with unconscious breathing.

“I can’t let you drive!” Panzica continues.

The bearded man awakens, but only enough to slightly cock his head, then pin his accelerator. The engine roar stops all conversation in a long line waiting to enter the packed Seal Beach bar around the corner.

Luckily, the van is in park.

Panzica, 39, is the founder of Scooter Patrol, a nonprofit Long Beach group saving lives (as well as DUI arrests) by ferrying inebriated bar patrons home in their own cars. Folding electric scooters are placed in trunks or truck beds; volunteers ride them to their next inebriated client.

Normally, Panzica demands car keys from any obviously impaired drivers he encounters along the way. If they resist, he grabs the keys and forcibly drives them home.

“When somebody can’t stand or walk, they can hardly drive a vehicle,” Panzica said earlier. “Now they’re putting me and my friends and family at risk, and I’m not gonna have that.”

But fate has hurled Panzica a curveball with the bearded man: His van has no key. It’s configured for a paraplegic. A joystick substitutes for the steering wheel, a series of unrecognizable buttons for all the familiar pedals and knobs.

Not only could Panzica never drive this vehicle, he can’t cut the engine.

“You’ve got to shut this thing off!” Panzica shouts. “I’m going to call the police!”

After five minutes, the bearded man obeys and hydraulically lowers himself to the sidewalk. Panzica introduces himself, in a surprisingly polite tone, then wheels him to a nearby coffee shop.

“I’ll wait here for three hours,” the man slurs. “I won’t drive, I promise.”

During the week, Scooter Patrol — which posts fliers in popular bars around Long Beach, Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach — responds to three to six calls per night, either from worried drivers or bartenders.

On weekends, the frequency is eight to 20, and on this night that number doubles.

St. Patrick’s Day is the second drunkest night after New Year’s Eve.

“The beauty of the whole thing is you have your vehicle in your front yard tomorrow morning,” says tonight’s first official client, who asks to be referred to only as Mike.

He is not visibly impaired but says he downed nine drinks over the previous three hours at a Seal Beach pub called Dave’s Other Place.

“If I were to call a cab, I’d have to figure out a way to get down here tomorrow morning, get my truck and then be at work on time,” he continues, as his Chevy Silverado is driven the 25 minutes back to Huntington Beach for him.

“I’ve got Anthony on my speed dial,” Mike says. (This is his fifth time using Scooter Patrol.)

Normally, Panzica plops his Goped into the back of Mike’s pickup.

But Panzica and a journalist can’t fit on a one-person scooter. So tonight we’re tailed by our ride back, a van driven by a former client and current Scooter Patrol volunteer. (His van features passenger amenities such as water, breath mints and air-sickness bags.)

Panzica is a Chicago-born Army brat whose last steady job was working corporate events as a James Dean impersonator in the ’90s.

The resemblance is still uncanny, which begs the question: Have people ever awakened to freak out at the sight of James Dean driving their car?

Panzica laughs. “He wasn’t too good of a driver, was he?” he responds.

Scooter Patrol employs Panzica and four other trained drivers. They’re all volunteers, but do OK on tips. (Mike will hand Panzica $40 tonight, more than cab fare plus gratuity.)

“I plan on making a good living doing this eventually,” Panzica says. “But it has to be built up and proven first.”

Panzica interrupts to field a request from a new client on his never-silent cell phone.

“Hang tight for another half hour,” he tells Stacy, who says she’s waiting in front of O’Malley’s in Seal Beach, wearing a tall green hat. The next call is a woman requesting transportation from one bar to another.

“We’re really not solving any problems that way,” Panzica explains to the caller. “We only want to get you home, so that you don’t hurt yourself or someone else.”

In 1989 Panzica received his own DUI conviction, courtesy of the Santa Monica Police Department.

“I was out partying one night and I didn’t realize how much I imbibed,” he says. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

He estimates the cost in fines and insurance at about $6,000. (Since then, it’s doubled — and that’s not counting any criminal charges, civil judgments and lifelong guilt for possibly killing or maiming others.)

Panzica dreamed up Scooter Patrol three years ago to help others avoid his fate — or a worse one. The idea came during a conversation with a friend on Main Street in Seal Beach, Southern California’s Times Square of alcohol consumption. (A one-mile stretch contains 21 always-busy drinking establishments.)

“We tried to come up with a solution to how you get the guy’s car home with him,” Panzica says. “We talked about a tow truck or a skateboard, folding bicycles. And we finally hit on scooters that fold up.”

It was an original idea — until Panzica discovered that one UK anti-drunk-driving organization had invented it two years earlier.

“But they charge for their service,” he says.

Another similar service, the Designated Drivers Association, operated briefly around Santa Monica last year. Drunk motorists were driven home from bars by two volunteers — one in the driver’s car, the second tailing in another.

“But we suspended operations indefinitely,” DDA founder Nick Yaya said during a separate interview. He blamed lack of support from the community during New Year’s Eve.

“We just couldn’t get the message out like we needed to,” he said. (Yaya has since gotten in touch with Panzica, and the two have scheduled a meeting to try and combine forces.)

“This is the bridge where I nearly got killed,” Panzica says as he nears his first client’s house. The memory is only one-month old.

“There was a drunk driver going the wrong way in this lane,” Panzica says. “He missed me by about four inches and plowed into the person behind me.” (The drunk driver died, Panzica reports; his victim survived with minor injuries.)

You won’t find many people to argue how wrong drunk driving is. Yet you also won’t find many people who won’t take the wheel after only two beers on a Saturday night. Like it or not, that’s our culture.

A case such as Mike’s or the bearded man’s is clear-cut. But what about the drinker who’s had significantly less and insists on driving?

“That’s a hard one,” Panzica says.

Drinkers are never a reliable gauge of how intoxicated they are. Neither are the DMV charts mailed out with registration renewals, which account only for differences in weight.

Accurately predicting blood-alcohol content (BAC) based on number of drinks over time also requires knowledge of when and how much food was last consumed. Knowing a person’s individual metabolic rate and body-fat content also is vital. And gender is a factor, with alcohol rushing faster into the bloodstream of females.

Personal breath tests aren’t accurate either — at least as of five years ago, when this reporter tested the Alcolimit DriveSafe model against a police machine.

After two 8-ounce glasses of champagne and a 15-minute wait, the test subject blew a .015 with the personal Alcolimit, but a whopping .07 at the police station.

Besides, drivers can legally be charged with DUI at any BAC level — if field-sobriety tests suggest they are impaired.

“Nobody can know for sure,” says Panzica, whose personal answer is never to drive with a trace of alcohol in him. However, this is not realistic for most party-going Americans.

“After you get popped, you know when you’re impaired,” says Mike. “I know based upon the education I was forced to receive, issued by the courts.”

Scooter Patrol currently operates from Huntington Beach up to Belmont Shore, but Panzica says he hopes to expand as far north as Manhattan Beach.

“There’s no set plan yet, but I’ve received some phone calls and e-mails from South Bay business people and residents who are very interested in having Scooter Patrol in their community.”

However, even a Scooter Patrol in every American city wouldn’t scratch the surface of the drunk-driving scourge.

Every 33 minutes in the U.S., someone is killed in a drunk-driving crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“There’s a serious problem there,” Panzica says, “and it’s not getting adequately addressed by drunk-driving laws.”

As if to illustrate the point, the bearded man wheels himself unsteadily out of the coffee shop and back into his van only 15 minutes after promising Panzica he’d take his time sobering up.

Panzica again threatens to summon the cops. This time, he is ignored. As the man starts up his van, Panzica whips out his cell phone. The bearded man isn’t even looking. He pulls away, astonishing onlookers.

In two years of performing this service, seven nights a week, Panzica says he’s “never dealt with anything like this.”

Panzica opts not to place the call to the police.

“When you’re trying to help the community, getting people incarcerated can hurt your reputation as somebody known for caring for people,” he says. “But, let me tell you, that was a very, very hard decision to make.”

Down the street, two unsuspecting boys dart their bicycles out in front of the van. Luckily, they are not hit.

“It’s gonna be a long night,” Panzica says

By Corey Levitan – Long Beach, CA

Daily Breeze

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