For the ninth New Year's Eve in a row, Washington area residents who take their reveling a little too seriously will be able to use free transportation to get home safely tonight.

A group of area corporations and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program have hired seven taxicab companies to provide free rides in Maryland, Virginia and the District for people who have had too much to drink and should not drive.

People interested in using the service, either for themselves or a friend, may call 703-AAA-RIDE between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. whatever their destination. Red Top Cab of Arlington is serving as the main dispatch center for the Sober Ride program and will refer calls for service to the closest participating company.

Other cab companies taking part in the effort include Barwood Cab Co. of Montgomery County; Checker Cab Co. in Prince George's County; Yellow Cab of Arlington; Yellow Cab of Fairfax and Loundon counties; Liberty Cabs in the District; and Prince William Cabs.

The free taxi service is available throughout the holiday season, not just on New Year's. This year, the program started on Dec. 2 and will continue through Wednesday. On New Year's, it is wise to order a cab at least an hour in advance because of the volume of calls, said Robert Krebs, a spokesman for AAA-Potomac.

A Baltimore-based cab company and the Maryland Shock Trauma Center also have teamed up to provide free rides back from the city for residents of Howard and northern Anne Arundel counties. The number for service is 301-783-2445.

However, individuals ordering taxis from locations within Howard and Anne Arundel are not eligible for the Baltimore program and will have to contact local cab companies directly and pay regular fares for service.

If you live in Montgomery County, another route home this year is to call one of two local towing companies offering free rides home for both people and their cars. The companies are G & G Towing, 301- 588-7090, and Ron's Towing, 301-762-4450, which serves Rockville and Silver Spring.

In the years since the Washington Sober Ride program was inaugurated, it has proven to be a popular local tradition.

Last year, the dispatch center averaged one call a minute during the week from Christmas to New Year's. About $9,000 worth of free rides were provided, Krebs said.

The taxicab companies are paid by the program's corporate sponsors.

This year, Anheuser-Busch is paying the cab fares, AAA is paying for the phone lines and the Automotive Trade Association of the National Capital Region is promoting the service.

Krebs, who is chairman of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, asks people to use the program "only as a safety net" and not to plan on making the service their preferred mode of transportation.

"The program is not meant to send a mixed signal that says, 'Drink all you want and here is a free ride home.' Our purpose is to say if you find yourself in that situation, we {would} rather you get a ride home than cause an alcohol-related accident," Krebs said.

"On the other hand, if the program is abused, we won't find corporate sponsorship to pay for the program and we may lose it," he added.

Interested individuals may also help the program by paying their own cab fare after ordering a ride or assigning a designated sober driver from among their group of friends, he said.

Woody McMahon, a manager at Blossoms restaurant at the Old Post Office and Pavilion downtown, said many inebriated customers seem to appreciate the free cab service when one of his staff suggests it.

"A lot of it depends on the person. Men frequently won't accept it, especially if they have a date," McMahon said. "But a lot of people realize, I think, that they can go to jail for drunk driving."