STORRS, CONN. >> A former University of Connecticut student has found a niche market in the ride-booking business, catering to drunk college students who want to get to and from parties and bars on weekends.
Lance Graziano, 22, said he got the idea for Sober XPress LLC in 2012, when a woman flagged him down while he was driving near the Storrs campus and asked if he could give her and a friend a ride back to their dorm.
A few days later, Graziano bought a pre-paid cellphone and began advertising his services on several UConn Facebook pages. People wanting a ride would text him and give him a couple of bucks in return for a safe trip home.
Graziano, who was a communication major, eventually left UConn to run the business.
Sober Xpress now has about 20 drivers, all UConn students, and a call center (in Graziano's apartment). It is set to launch its own app in just over a month that will allow students to ask for a ride with the touch of a button. The company asks for $3 to $8 per person for any one-way ride within 5 miles of campus, depending on the number of passengers, more for longer rides.
After the app comes out early next year, Graziano said, he plans to expand his business to the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts.
"Were not out here to become a multibillion-dollar huge thing," Graziano said. "But we do provide a service that people need and we are growing."
The drivers take 75 percent of the fare. Sober XPress gets 25 percent. Drivers usually make about $15 an hour, he said. The service runs Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to about 3 a.m., he said.
Graziano said his service is safer and more reliable than "sober rides" offered on social media at UConn and many other schools.
Sarah Kelly, 20, a junior at UConn, is one of several freelancers who offers rides in her car by posting her phone number on a Facebook page that was set up to buy and sell basketball tickets. She said it's a good way to pick up extra money on the weekend.
"I've never felt unsafe," she said. "I've never had anything happen that's really worrisome. I hear a lot about boy issues. I see a lot of the sad drunk-girl type."
But Graziano said Sober Xpress is different. His drivers undergo background checks, receive a week of training including how to deal with drunk people, and their cars must pass safety inspections, he said. The company picks up only passengers who have a valid UConn email address.
"That's kind of our safety barrier for now," he said.
A competing sober rides company, Sobrio, which also began at UConn in 2012, is no longer in business.
Graziano said he has had to file a police report only once, after a passenger's boyfriend tried to stop her from getting in a Sober Xpress car and he had to physically remove him from the vehicle. The company also has a rule, he said, that if drivers see someone walking on the road who looks in need of help, drivers must stop and other them a free rides.
The university said it is aware of the business and encourages students to use safe alternatives to drinking and driving.
"At the same time, we also encourage people to be careful in accepting rides from people they don't know and whose service is not regulated by a regulatory agency, like the state Department of Motor Vehicles," said Stephanie Reitz, a university spokeswoman.
Kat Dolan, an 18-year-old freshman psychology major, is a regular customer. On this night, she and two friends got a ride from the campus ice rink to their dorm and then to a friend's off-campus apartment in nearby Willington.
The service is much more affordable than alternatives such a taxi or Uber, it's reliable and she feels safe using it, she said.
UConn, like other schools, offers its own free rides program. But Dolan said they would much rather have someone not associated with the administration driving them to and from parties.
"We're college students," she said. "We get drunk sometimes."