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Friday, November 28, 2008

New Approach to Stop Drunken Drivers

University of Florida Implements "Gator Watch" Initiative

To crack down on drunk driving, the University of Florida has increased arrests of intoxicated drivers and is penalizing students who drive drunk off campus.

However, they recently tried a softer approach.

As part of the Gator Watch initiative, students are asked to use taxis, look out for their friends, and take further action to prevent alcohol-related injuries in the 96 hours surrounding their big football game versus the University of South Carolina.

Chris Machen, wife of UF President Bernie Machen, said, "We wanted to take the angle that you can prevent this by making the right choices."

In the nearly five years that President Machen has been the figurehead of UF, his tenure has been marked by high-profile deaths involving alcohol. In his first 15 months as president, five UF students died in drinking-related deaths.

During UF's 2006 national basketball championship celebration, a drunk driver struck and killed Gainesville Police Lt. Corey Dahlem.

The scope of the problem was revealed by UF research studies. In a series of studies, In Gainesville bars, UF health researchers surveyed patrons and gave them Breathalyzer tests. Roughly one-third to one-half of the patrons who reported they were driving tested above the legal limit for alcohol.

Virginia Dodd, an assistant professor in UF's department of health education and behavior, said patrons often still got behind the wheel after hearing the results.

"They weren't deterred by being told they had a high level of alcohol in their systems," she said.

According to another study by a criminology doctoral student, roughly 1 in 20 of the UF undergraduates who began attending the university in 2004 have been cited or criminally charged. Nearly all of the violations were alcohol-related.

To address the problem, the university is using a variety of approaches, including advertising campaigns, educational endeavors, and punitive measures, including both UF law enforcement and academic officials.

The university has suspended 94 students from school for drunken driving since 2005. Fueled by a controversial crackdown on intoxicated drivers off campus, university police arrests for drunken driving quadrupled from 2004 to 2007.

University Police Chief Linda Stump said, "We recognize it's a huge problem out there and we need to make sure to protect our campus."

Florida state law allows officers to patrol within 1,000 feet of university properties and make stops while they're driving between disconnected university properties, Stump said. The department also cites its mutual aid agreements with local law enforcement agencies in allowing off-campus stops.

Opposing the practice are local defense attorneys, leading to two separate lawsuits before the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee about the legitimacy of UFPD making off-campus stops.

Gainesville attorney Tom Copeland asked, "If you allow them to overstep their borders by an inch, what's to say they won't take a mile?"

Students caught driving drunk on and off campus are punished by the university. Chris Loschiavo, UF's director of student conduct and conflict resolution, said that since fall 2005, the university has reviewed 214 DUI cases and suspended 94 students.

Loschiavo said, "Generally speaking, we tell students you can expect to be suspended for a minimum of one semester."

Educational activities that can include counseling, seminars and community service are required of students.

Loschiavo said that another 177 students were required to do those types of activities and given probation. The remaining cases are either pending or involved students who left the university before their cases were resolved.

UF research studies illustrate the extent of drunk driving. In a summer 2007 study, researchers surveying 477 Gainesville bar patrons found one-quarter said they intended to drive. Over half of the group was above the legal limit for alcohol, as proven by breathalyzer tests. According to saliva samples, 16 percent tested positive for marijuana or other drugs.

Another study discovered that most patrons who drove to the bars also drove home. Almost one third of them tested higher than the legal limit for alcohol that would have allowed them to drive. According to researchers, a lack of public transportation and the early morning towing of cars can influence the decision on whether to drive.

"They're faced with driving while intoxicated or leaving this valued property," Dodd said.

The legal consequences of drinking were illuminated by another study.

When David Khey, a criminology doctoral student, compared a list of students who started UF in 2004 with law enforcement records, he found that about 1 in 20 were cited or arrested during their time in Gainesville.

Khey said that while the vast majority of the cases were for underage drinking or open containers, there were more than 20 drunken driving cases. He found alcohol-related cases peaked during the fall football season.

Khey said, "The culture of a university in the fall just seems to enhance drinking arrests.”

According to Loschiavo, DUI cases involving students were actually higher during the spring semester. Some involve students nearing graduation whose longer experience in the drinking scene might lead them to take risks, he said.

The aim of the Gator Watch campaign is to get students to make responsible decisions and watch out for their friends.

The effort is loosely based on UF's student safety zone that was employed during the UF-University of Georgia football game, which had been marred by alcohol-related deaths of students in 2004 and 2005.

For the campaign, Chris Machen and other university representatives were addressing students groups. The effort seeks a shift in attitudes among students.

"We don't want to come down on these kids," she said. "We want them to think."

Is your teen a safe driver? The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has developed a new Teen Injury Prevention course to emphasize driving safety for teenagers. For more information, including a Driver Education a Driver Education Book for Parents, visit

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