Breathalyzer machines help offset party school ranking

BY KATIE KUNTZ | JULY 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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The new 2012 Party School Rankings have been posted, and the University of Iowa earned a spot at No. 4. The Princeton Review Party School Rankings have noticed the UI as a true contender and listed us as a top-20 party school for the last few years.

Iowa City and UI officials have looked to lower binge drinking rates in part for safety reasons, and also because this reputation of binge drinking reflects poorly on our city and campus. Maybe having a bunch of drunks running — or driving — around isn't ideal.

They present a valid argument. In fact for January through April, the Iowa City police report 132 OWI arrests, with 19 accidents due to over-consumption of alcohol as well as more than 500 other alcohol-related arrests. It turns out alcohol is not necessarily a sure sign of a good time.

Two people in particular, Becky Russo and Bill Schmookes, were so concerned about these numbers that they took action. With a little ingenuity and clever marketing, these two small-time entrepreneurs decided to start a business called Be SAFE (Supporting Alcohol-Friendly Establishments) Iowa.

Be SAFE Iowa places and maintains breath tests in bars downtown to encourage safe consumption of alcohol by informing people of just how drunk they really are. Just pay $1, blow into the straw, read your blood-alcohol content, and pay attention to the ads for taxis.

Russo said she recognizes the problems caused by over-consumption of alcohol, and she wants to encourage change.

"I wanted to help Iowa City get rid of its binge-drinking reputation," she said. "I went to school at the university and grew up going to Jazz Fest and Friday Night Concert Series. Iowa City is more than just drinking."

Schmookes, who is an Iowa City firefighter, sees drunk-driving accidents firsthand. He has also seen people use the machine and change their minds, sit down, order some food, and sober up before they drive.

Both believe that their product can produce positive results, because, well, it just makes sense.

"This way, you can double check where you're at," Russo said. "You can pay a dollar here or risk a DUI, and it makes more sense to just pay the dollar."

Today, these breath tests are in the Wildwood, Liquor Downtown, and Throttle Down in Iowa City. Be SAFE Iowa would like to add one on the Pedestrian Mall, too.

Jason Caylor, who owns Liquor Downtown, Falbos, and Liquor House, decided that he would allow Be SAFE to install a machine, but his focus was the advertising.

"I don't make any money from this, but I do get to advertise," he said.

He said he was concerned students may use the devices for competition and drink even more, but as a storeowner and a father, he wants to encourage responsibility.

That being said, only time will tell if the breath tests are truly successful in preventing more accidents.

Police Sgt. Denise Brotherton also said she wanted to warn that having a breath test may give some consumers a false sense of security.

"If there is alcohol in your system, it is still unsafe to drive," she said. "We [the police] certainly support safety, but what good does it do if you blow a 0.7 but still get in an accident? Blood-alcohol content isn't everything, and safety is very important."

Be SAFE Iowa has an important goal and a creative approach. An inexpensive product encourages people to use the machines and think twice. Being a top-five U.S. party school is not what makes the university amazing. Having people who are smart, creative, and caring is what sets us apart. Support a SAFE Iowa.

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