It happens all the time. Inebriated students leave bars, car keys in hand, and each year, approximately 1,700 American college students never make it home.
This statistic, which was calculated in a 2005 study by the Annual Review of Public Health, may not resonate on the University of Massachusetts campus, where relatively few deaths occur as a result of OUI, despite several such arrests being made each year.
The University’s Student Government Association wants to help combat all incidences of drunk driving, and, as was discussed in their meeting Monday, the body hopes to partner with the UMass Transit Authority to pick up students 15 minutes after last call at downtown Amherst’s bars’ last calls. Last call downtown is usually around 1 a.m.
Dubbing the late night bus the “Sober Shuttle,” the program was developed by the SGA’s Secretary of Diversity Akshay Kapoor.
“People do drink and drive; that is a fact of life,” said Kapoor. “I don’t think anyone inherently wants to drink and drive, but when there is a program like this in place, those chances, those odds really go down.”
Students must present their student IDs before entering the “Sober Shuttle,” and the bus would stop at major housing areas such as Puffton Village Apartments, North Apartments, Brandywine Apartments and Hobart Lane; however, Kapoor said the bus’ route could change by the time of its implementation.
He added that a police officer would be onboard the bus and that the SGA would develop “certain rules and regulations” for passengers to follow.
Kapoor said these rules and regulations would be similar to the ones already in place for the late night weekend bus routes to Puffton Village Apartments. If a student is disorderly on the bus, they could be subject to punishment by both local police and the Dean of Students Office.
Also in the works is a plan that would allow students who opt to take the “Sober Shuttle” to leave automobiles parked downtown overnight without penalty, according to Kapoor. He added that this facet of the plan is still being negotiated with town officials.
At this point, the plan is still in its infancy, and the “Sober Shuttle” will have to be voted on by students during the next SGA elections in March before it can be piloted. This means that the plan will not be realized without support from the students.
Marissa Polechronis, a UMass junior who is not yet 21, said that she would support the plan even though she would not personally benefit from its existence until her birthday.
“Anyone can be a victim [of a drunk driving accident], so it really helps everyone out,” said Polechronis.
Senior Tim Comisky also supports plans for “Sober Shuttle.” He said that even when people visiting the bars designate a sober driver, that person will sometimes have several drinks. He added that he thinks this is a dangerous habit.
“A lot of kids drive because they don’t want to be on the bus schedule,” said Comisky. He said students are often unwilling to cut their night short in order to catch the bus or are unwilling to wait for buses that come after the bars close.
The program is to be voted on as one of the two referendum questions on the upcoming SGA ballot. If students do choose to vote the program into action, it will most likely be operational by the start of next fall semester, according to Kapoor.
“It should cost somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000,” said Kapoor. “When you break it down it should come out to a dollar and some change per-student, per-semester.”
Kapoor expects the fee to be tacked onto each student’s registrar bill. This could be a sticking point for some students that are opposed to fee increases of any kind. However, after polling several students, this reporter could not find students opposed to the plan because of its projected costs.
“What’s two dollars a semester when I’m out buying seven dollar drinks,” said Alex Carll, a junior communications major.
The PVTA already runs at least two buses through downtown at around the same time, but Kapoor feels that these buses are often either overcrowded or too late to prevent drunk driving.
“By 1:30 a.m., most people are already gone. You’re not going to wait 30 minutes or an hour to get a bus, you’re going to start walking or [hopefully not] driving,” said Kapoor.
“There is a lot of stigma with having a bus like this,” said Kapoor. “[Students may be thinking] ‘I can get drunk at the bars and have a free ride home.’ That’s not the case here, that’s not what we are trying to promote, and if that is the mentality you have, and you are belligerent, you will be held accountable.”
Plans similar to this have been proposed before, but none have included the use of PVTA buses. Kapoor explained that the previous plans were never realized because insurance issues involving the use of personal vehicles surfaced during negotiations. He thinks that this plan is more realistic because it will use a framework that is already in place and an already effective system of transportation.
Kapoor noted that the University administration is on board with the idea, but they are reluctant to promote it publicly in order to avoid allegations that they support drinking in any way.
According to Kapoor, local business owners in Amherst also support the idea. However, local business owners cannot help fund the program because of insurance conflicts, he said.
Most of the promotion for the program will come from members of the SGA, who in the next few weeks will begin posting flyers and explaining the program to students in the Campus Center.
“In other [schools] it has always been the student government that put this type of system into place,” said Kapoor. “A lot of times there is a gap between what the administration wants and what we [students] actually want or need. Who else is better at addressing these needs than fellow students?”
The total number of deaths as a result of drunk driving in the United States came to 13,470 in 2010, according to a study by UMass professor David Buchanan in his scholarly article “The Complementary Roles of Public Health and Medicine in the U.S. Health Care System.”
Although this figure seems high, “There has been a lot of progress in the last ten years,” said Buchanan. “The rate has almost been cut in half [over that period of time].”
He attributes this success to more public awareness and sensitivity about drunk driving but also to an increased number of programs that focus on providing safe rides home for those that are intoxicated.
“The loss of life, whether it be in high school, college or what have you, is always a terrible tragedy,” said Buchanan. Buchanan said he supports the idea behind “Sober Shuttle.”
Zachary Weishar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.