KU students designate SafeBus as preferred ride

Michael Hardy and his cousin Kayla take a ride on SafeBus in December. They say the transportation service, provided by Kansas University, is something they use often.

SafeBus is not a normal bus: It’s a party where the guests change every 10 minutes.

It’s early Sunday morning, 12:30 a.m., and SafeBus has just pulled up to Sixth and New Hampshire streets. Sitting near the front is Joshua, 19. Asked to describe a typical weekend night, he says: “We just randomly walk around, drink a lot and call SafeBus when we have to go home. That’s pretty much it, really.”

KU students each pay $12.10 in student fees every semester to fund SafeBus and its taxi-like sister program, SafeRide. Routes run from downtown hot spots to the KU campus. In 2008, the first year SafeBus operated, it gave the equivalent of 10,000 student rides. The program has become much more popular. Last semester, it’s provided 42,000 student rides.

The bus pulls up to Lewis Hall, Joshua’s stop. He and his friends are about to get off when he stops them.

“Hold up, we gotta clean up,” Joshua says, pointing to the empty beer cans that litter the bus floor.

He puts the cans into his backpack, and he and his friends stumble off the bus and into the night, yelling their thanks to the bus driver.

Tonight’s SafeBus crowd might be rowdy. They might be drunk. But they are a courteous bunch.

The SafeBus driver is in her mid-20s, and she’s kind of an older-sister figure. She’s constantly telling riders to have a good night and to be safe. They usually respond in kind.

“If you’re in a good mood and you’re dealing with drunk people, then it puts them in a good mood,” she says.

A new batch of students bursts onto the bus, and a guy named Dakota recognizes the driver.

“You gave us that speech that one night,” Dakota says, happy to see her.

She insists it wasn’t a speech, really — just some friendly advice.

“Be safe. Have fun. If you make mistakes, don’t make them lifelong,” she says.

Nationally, about 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related causes every year. That’s a fraction of a percent of the 17 million undergraduates in the U.S., but tens of thousands more students report assaults, sexual abuse and injuries stemming from alcohol use, according to research published in 2005 by the Annual Review of Public Health.

KU has suffered its own losses. In March 2009, 19-year-old freshman Jason Wren died of alcohol poisoning. Six weeks later, 18-year-old Dalton Eli Hawkins, also a freshman, died after a fall from Watkins Scholarship Hall, and alcohol was reportedly in his system.

Tonight on SafeBus, there’s a lot of passing talk about DUIs and responsibility. A young man in the back points out several cars that have been pulled over by police behind the Daisy Hill residence halls on Irving Hill Road.

“There are always a lot of cops pulling people over here,” a girl tells him.

In the front of the bus, two shirtless guys give their friend a sobriety test, making her stand on one foot while saying the alphabet. She can’t do it.

“Ma’am, you’re under arrest,” one says, doing his best cop impression.

She cracks up.

Even through all the joking, the riders seem to see themselves as making the responsible choice. Of course, there’s the obvious question: Why do the students, most of them under 21, need to party and drink at all?

Dakota, a junior studying economics, says he knows it doesn’t sound good — the going out, the partying. But to him, the people riding SafeBus are the ones doing the responsible thing.

“SafeBus is the better option if you are going to party,” Dakota says. “It’s not worth risking somebody’s life.”

The bus stops back at Sixth and New Hampshire, and all of the riders exit. Alone for a few moments, the driver relaxes, waiting for the next bunch.

“We have very different lifestyles,” she says about the riders. “If I drink, I definitely don’t get hammered. But they’ll grow up. They’ll learn.”