Kristin Otero, a 16-year-old senior at South River High School in Edgewater, has quit her job at the Roy Rogers restaurant. She could have used the money, she says, but she figures her time is better spent helping teen-agers who drink and drive.
"Every weekend after games, and sometimes on school nights till 10, people are out partying--you know, drinking beer," said Otero, who lives in Davidsonville, Md., a rural community in southern Anne Arundel County. "We're not telling the other kids not to drink. All we're saying is: 'That's OK. If you need our help, don't hesitate to call.' "
Otero and 30 other South River students have formed Safe Rides For Teens, a program modeled after one in Connecticut offering free transportation to students too drunk to drive or passengers unwilling to travel with a drunk driver.
Safe Rides, which supporters plan to launch Dec. 17, would be Maryland's first anti-drunken driving campaign organized and run entirely by students.
Around Davidsonville teen-age drinking and driving "has been a problem for quite a while, but it's also been growing lately," said Jim Smith Jr., a 16-year-old junior at South River. Davidsonville and Edgewater have no local taxi or bus service and many teen-agers get a car while still in high school.
"Drinking is a pretty big thing around here. I've seen it: the kids who go out drinking and then drive home," Smith said.
Maryland State Police report that of the 572 traffic deaths statewide between the first of the year and last Monday, 270 of those were alcohol-related. In the first six months of this year, police say, 32 of the 96 drivers killed in alcohol-related accidents were between 16 and 21 years old; nine of the 32 who died were 16, 17, or 18 years old. Authorities said that although high, the number of drunken-driving deaths is still about 10 percent lower than in past years.
But the trauma remains for South River students a year after two of their classmates died in a car accident that some of their friends say may have been alcohol-related, and that's why, four months after the state raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, they're fighting the young drunk driver by offering to do the driving for him or her.
And the Chesapeake Bay-area county is not alone. In Bowie, officials started a Dial-a-Ride program two years ago that helped dozens of people during the holiday season.
According to John Gibbons, the Youth Service Bureau counselor who started the program, Dial-a-Ride will resume around Thanksgiving and run through the Christmas season.
This week, Bowie ninth graders will take part in a special two-part program on alcohol, drugs and driving, and similar programs will mark the week of Dec. 12-16, which the Prince George's County Board of Education has designated Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week.
In Montgomery County, whose "Scared Stff" slide program on drunken driving has drawn regional attention, a group of businessmen, county officials and students offered free rides during the spring prom and graduation season. A county spokesman said the program will be revived again next year.
While Bowie's ride program uses parent-student teams to chauffeur others safely home, South River's will use pairs of students. Those volunteers must complete an eight-hour defensive driving course taught by Anne Arundel police at their training facility in Millersville, Md.
"This idea is fantastic," said Cody Godman, executive director of the Safety Council of Maryland, sponsor of the driving course. Six adult supervisors and 22 teen-agers will give up four consecutive Tuesday nights for the training.
Several groups have climbed aboard the Safe Rides bandwagon. The Safety Council decided not to charge its usual fee for the course. A national firm with a factory in Anne Arundel has contributed $350 for the program and another $325 has been donated. Rep. Marjorie S. Holt (R-Md.), several House of Delegate members and leaders of other campaigns against drunken driving have also endorsed Safe Rides for Teens.
But among South River pupils, enthusiasm is only lukewarm, the students say. "The kids aren't behind it," Otero said. "From their point of view, I think, they don't feel it's important. They think it's a parents' group, and students just don't listen to what parents say about drinking and driving. But kids formed it. Maybe their attitude will change.
"You can tell teen-agers as many times as you like, but there's no way to tell them to stop drinking," said Smith, who also lives in Davidsonville. "And we may not be able to stop it, either, but at least we can save some lives in the long run."
Some South River students said their principal, Martin J. Eichhorn, was less than thrilled with the idea of teen-aged drivers carting their peers home on Friday and Saturday nights. "At first, I thought the program was condoning drinking--and that should not be the school's message," Eichhorn said last week. "Our message to students is 'Don't drink--and certainly don't drink and drive.' "
In a fall term already plagued by a number of student driving accidents, Safe Rides "offers our kids and young people the option of being driven home," Eichhorn said. "And that's very useful."
This is how the program will work: Students needing a ride can call one of two telephone numbers to reach a communications center in the parish hall of Davidsonville's Holy Family Catholic Church. Radio dispatched teams--coed pairs who provide their own cars and are reimbursed for gasoline--would then pick up the person and drive him home. The passengers' identities will be kept confidential; an adult will supervise operations from the church during the Friday and Saturday night shifts, which start at 10 p.m. and end at 3 in the morning.
The drivers, who will be affiliated with a local Boy Scout Explorer's Post, will be covered by the organization's liability insurance.
"It's time for some good news about teens," said Smith's mother, Pat. "The kids are behind this idea. They're the ones getting it off the ground."