School haze

October 05, 2004

UNDERAGE AND EXCESS drinking are chronic problems for the nation's colleges and universities. But an even greater risk is the harm caused by drunken driving. No one wants students drinking off campus and then driving back to their dorms. While drinking is potentially harmful, drunken driving is more likely to be fatal.

So it's troubling to hear about a recent incident involving Salisbury University and overzealous police from the nearby city of Fruitland.

Here's what happened: For the past 10 years, the Eastern Shore school has provided a Safe Ride van to give a lift to students who have been drinking off campus. The student-run service is provided free of charge and with no questions asked. Student anonymity is an important feature - teens who think they might be punished if they're suspected of drinking or have their parents notified about it are far less likely to make use of the van.

Three weeks ago, Fruitland officers pulled over one of the vans and asked the two students on board for identification. Why? Fruitland's police chief says the students had been spotted earlier that evening running away from an off-campus party. Salisbury authorities suspect the officers were annoyed by the inconvenience - the van had gotten lost and was an hour behind schedule. Police were stuck waiting for it to pick up the last of the party-goers.

Whatever the reasoning, the effect was chilling. Some Salisbury students griped to the local media that Safe Ride was no longer anonymous. Student government leaders worried that its effectiveness had been compromised. Since that event, ridership has fallen by more than a third, but school officials think it's too early to tell if that's a permanent shift.

The incident illustrates the difficulties universities face these days with alcohol. Schools don't want to enable drinking, and they often sponsor alternative social events - but officials have little control over off-campus behavior. Last month, the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse was sued by the family of a student who drowned in the Mississippi River after a night of drinking. He had used that school's Safe Ride bus to get from campus to a local bar.

At Salisbury, vans give rides only to students returning to campus. And it's been a popular service, picking up as many as 600 students in a weekend. Altogether, the program has given rides to tens of thousands of students, and there hasn't been one student drunken driving fatality during those 10 years. That's probably more than coincidence. Police departments that deal with college-age drinkers could learn a thing or two from Fruitland's too-eager tactics. Sometimes the smart move is to chill - and let responsible students do the driving.

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