Sheila Johnson in the Safe Ride van

UMB Police Department Safe Ride driver Sheila Johnson provides a behind-the-scenes look at Safe Ride.

The door of the University of Maryland, Baltimore Police Department (UMBPD) Safe Ride van flies open with a whir. Christmas music plays softly from inside the toasty warm van. “Good morning,” says the passenger brightly. “Good morning! How are you?” asks security officer Sheila Johnson. And they’re off.

Johnson has served as a UMBPD security officer for 32 years. She has done every role in security, from building checks to the front security desk. Even though UMB has offered police safety escorts for more than 20 years, Johnson was one of the first security officers to become a Safe Ride driver in 2018. She likes interacting with riders, but she also knows when passengers want to be left alone. 

“My thing has always been people,” says Johnson. “As a Safe Ride driver, you get to brighten someone’s day. Sometimes they get in and it’s been a hard day. You can listen to them and say, ‘It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be all right.’”

When Johnson became a Safe Ride driver, she trained for two weeks with a police officer. Safe Ride drivers have to know all the street names and numbered blocks within the Safe Ride boundary, which covers 0.67 square miles surrounding UMB. “My training officer would just call out street names and you would have to go to that street,” she says. 

Safe Ride currently runs from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. on UMB’s campus and in neighboring communities. The boundary extends as far northeast as Mount Vernon and southwest into Pigtown. 

“It can take a while to drive all that way,” Johnson says, “especially if there’s traffic or construction.” Safe Ride is the busiest during bad weather. Riders can get frustrated waiting for a Safe Ride; they sometimes take their frustration out on the drivers. “We all need to treat everyone with civility and respect. We’re all doing our best,” she says.

Safe Ride drivers must also follow COVID-19 protocol, including wearing a mask and allowing just three people in the van at a time to maintain physical distancing. Sometimes, passengers will request a ride for one person, but when the driver arrives, there are two. If there are already two people in the van, this creates a challenge.

“Riders need to follow the rules,” says Johnson. “It’s for your safety and ours. We need to account for our time and track the number of rides. We’re not trying to be mean. We have to follow protocol.”

While Safe Ride is available anywhere within the boundary, drivers ask that riders be mindful of their requests. “Use us to get to and from class, meetings, or even if you have a short lunch break and need a ride,” says Johnson. However, requesting rides to go to the bars or non-UMB events can significantly delay rides for those who are trying to go home from work or class. Drivers can have as many as six riders waiting for a Safe Ride. Depending on where each person is going, wait times can increase drastically. 

The average wait time for a Safe Ride is eight to 10 minutes. Safe Ride can be requested through the Mobile UMB app or by calling 410-706-6882. Impatient riders will sometimes cancel their request and put it back in, “but that drops you to the back of the line,” says Johnson, so try to be patient. 

Johnson says most Safe Rides are students from the School of Dentistry and School of Pharmacy. They tend to be the same riders from the same areas. Johnson recognizes the “regulars” by their address when it appears on her iPad screen. 

UMBPD runs two Safe Ride vans at all times and will add a third during peak ridership times. Johnson says the drivers keep in contact with each other so they know when someone is taking a break or if they need to get gas. 

“If I’m not busy and another driver is overwhelmed, I’ll help them out,” says Johnson. “We keep it going smooth. Everyone needs a break sometimes.”

When the drivers aren’t busy, they will drive around campus or park on corners for increased visibility. Some Safe Ride vans even have emergency lights to help clear the way for emergency vehicles. The three Safe Ride vans include a Safe Ride minivan, a Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL) minivan, and a 12-passenger van — that’s Johnson’s favorite.

“I like driving the big van,” says Johnson. “I’m the only one who drives it. It’s big. I’m little. I can see everything!”

Passengers can help Safe Ride drivers by:

  • Requesting the correct number of riders in the app or on the phone.
  • Being ready to go when your Safe Ride arrives.
  • Being mindful of your Safe Ride requests during peak travel times so drivers can prioritize getting students and employees home safely.
  • Having your UMB or UMMC ID card visible; Safe Ride drivers are happy to show you their ID, too!
  • Saying “hello” when you get in (it’s polite!).
  • Being patient and kind. Long waits, bad weather, traffic, construction, COVID protocols, and unexpected situations can be extremely frustrating, but don’t take it out on the drivers. Please remember UMB’s core value of “Respect and Integrity” — a little civility goes a long way!

Learn more about Safe Ride and Safe Walk, read frequently asked questions, and meet UMBPD’s Safe Ride drivers

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