10/14 update: Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calls for more scrutiny of stretches nationwide.
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, more than five million high school students binge drink at least once a month, and children cite other people’s homes as the most common setting for drinking. More eye-opening stats come from Monitoring the Future, an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes and values of American secondary school students, college students and young adults: Four out of every five (80%) students have consumed alcohol (more than a few sips) by the end of high school, and two-thirds of 12th graders report having been drunk.
The sad reality is that many of these intoxicated teens get behind the wheel and endanger their own lives, as well as those of their passengers, other motorists and pedestrians, too.
Given the above staggering statistics on alcohol use among America’s youth, promoting prom safety should be top priority among operators who transport prom-goers. Matthew Silver, president of Ultimate Class Limousine in Hicksville, N.Y., and the director of the Nassau/Suffolk Limousine Association, knows this all too well. With an 18-year track record of only one prom “incident,” Silver says his company’s prom contract is very clear in stating to kids and parents that if any alcohol is brought into the vehicle, their contract will terminate and all monies will be forfeited at that point. In addition, a parent or legal guardian must sign the contract even if one of the prom-goers is 18 years old. As a safeguard, Ultimate Class takes a security deposit at the time of booking, which covers at least two hours of overtime or damages that may occur. Silver also credits his chauffeurs for guaranteeing a safe ride for teens, as many of them are responsible parents themselves.
Like Silver, Scott Mezger, owner of M & M Limousine Co. in Cincinnati, and president of the Greater Cincinnati Limousine Association, also employs a prom contract that clearly defines acceptable client behavior, including his company’s zero-tolerance policy involving minors consuming alcohol in its vehicles. Illegal drugs and smoking are also strictly prohibited. If teens violate the contract during their service, the chauffeur can terminate the run immediately, says Mezger.
“When booking the prom service, I always discuss our policy with parents and the majority of them admire our no-nonsense approach to alcohol and minors. Often, this is the reason they call us back to book a service in the future,” says Mezger. “But we take it one step further. Our policy is simply ‘one minor, all minors.’ By this we mean that even if everyone in the vehicle is of legal drinking age except for one person, then we will not allow the consumption of alcohol in the vehicle,” he explains. “The temptation would be too great for the underage person, and we don’t want our chauffeurs to have to play chaperone.” In addition, M & M Limousine requires that all oversized personal bags, duffel bags and backpacks be stored in the vehicle’s trunk until the final drop-off destination. At Satisfaction Limousines in Lenox, Mich., the company’s prom pledge is a compilation of the NLA’s “I Promise Program,” a teen passenger limousine contract, and other limousine association prom contracts.
Says Richard Greiner, a chauffeur with Satisfaction Limousines and president of the Great Lakes Limousine Association (GLLA), “Actually, the biggest problem I’ve seen over the years when working a prom is not with teens but with their parents because they’re resigned to the fact that their kids are going to drink so they’d rather the kids don’t do the driving themselves.”
A Chauffeur’s Worst Prom Nightmare: Parents For Greiner, a situation that occurred years ago when he had to pick up teens at a house party to chauffeur them to prom, takes first place as far as prom gone bad. He tells the twisted tale: “The mother of the teen who had booked the service came up to me with a case of champagne to put in the vehicle and I told her it wouldn’t be allowed. We got into a very heated discussion. I told her I would call the police department and ask its policy on minors drinking. She became incensed. I also said the prom hall owns their own Breathalyzer that they use on kids entering the hall. Since it is a private facility that possesses a liquor license, they are allowed to do this,” he says. “She marched off with the champagne,” Greiner continues, “and when the prom-goers entered the vehicle, I noticed they had been drinking. I called the local police regarding my obligation and I was told if I suspected the teens were drinking, it was my decision whether to transport them, but they would more than likely drive themselves if I left. So I decided, for their own safety, I would take them.
“During the 40-minute drive they called me every name in the book. Needless to say, they failed the Breathalyzer test as they entered the hall. Even though I explained what had happened, as a formality the owner of the establishment and a police officer had to search my vehicle. All they found were some of the teens’ personal belongings, which I said I would release to the parents when they arrived. Well, the mother who I had the altercation with showed up and the police arrested her for driving under the influence and for having an open liquor container in her car,” says Greiner.
“Believe it or not, years later the woman’s daughter called and asked for me because she wanted to book a limousine for her 21st birthday party. She apologized for her and her friends’ bad behavior and now as an adult, she realized I did the right thing. It turns out her mom was trying to win brownie points with her because she was going through a divorce.”
Greiner reports that many more reception halls are taking a pro-active stance against teens and alcohol, which goes hand-in-hand with operators advocating prom safety. Silver’s only prom incident also involved parents not taking responsibility for their teens and alcohol use. He recounts the story: “We were hired for a junior prom and the prom-goers chose my brand new limousine bus. It’s our policy to provide a host/hostess on all limousine bus prom runs. He/she pours the beverages to help prevent spillage, makes sure there is no drug or alcohol use and keeps the vehicle clean. This person does not act as their parent or friend, but is simply there to ensure everything runs smoothly,” Silver explains.
“The teens were going on a cruise after the prom so the chauffeur took them to someone’s house to change clothes (this was approved ahead of time by their parents). Unbeknownst to the hostess and the chauffeur, many of the teens downed some hard alcohol while there and then immediately boarded the bus before showing the effects. Not long after, some of the teens passed out and others vomited. Luckily, everyone was OK in the end, but we spent three hours cleaning the bus after its maiden voyage,” says Silver.
Mezger also has had problems with prom-goers who were drinking in private homes (the usual pick-up location) and then show up at the vehicle intoxicated. “We’ve had to suspend our service multiple times for this type of infraction,” he says. “The last thing we want to do is to take responsibility for a group of drunken, out-of-control teenagers.”
Like Greiner, Mezger also has experienced run-ins with irresponsible parents who become irate when the chauffeur refused to transport alcohol for their teens. “Some parents actually followed behind the limousine in their personal cars stocked with alcohol for their kids,” he says.
Leave the Driving To Us Ask any experienced operator and he/she will tell you the safest mode of transportation for prom-goers is chauffeured. Realizing this, the Nassau/Suffolk Limousine Association joined with the New York State DMV years back to offer free rides to stranded teens who don’t have a safe and sober way to get home on prom night. Ultimate Class Limousine is responsible for responding to their requests, says Silver, and it has come to the rescue of many a prom-goer in need.
But even with all the effort Silver and the Nassau/Suffolk Limousine Association have put into promoting prom safety, a local high school, Garden City High School, has banned limousines from its prom this year. The decision was based on the allegation that a limousine is a prime scene for drinking before prom.
This ban contradicts the message among operators that booking a livery vehicle actually increases prom safety, so limousine companies need to have the proper ammunition to counteract this negative publicity.
Mezger does this by taking the time to educate parents who call his company for information on booking a limousine for their kids’ prom. “I tell them how important it is to hire a fully licensed, properly insured operator, and I suggest they call the Better Business Bureau to check on a company’s past reputation. I go one step further, though, and give them the contact information of the authority that regulates our industry [in the state of Ohio],” he says. Next, Mezger discusses the advantages of booking the prom service with his company. He tells parents that M & M has been in business for many years, and that they can contact some of his clients to ask about the quality of its service. In addition, Mezger invites them to visit his operation so they can see firsthand how he conducts business.
“As a parent myself, I tell them the important things to look for in hiring a reputable company,” says Mezger. “This lets callers know we are genuinely concerned about the safety of their precious children. Finally, I leave them with something to keep in mind, which is to caution their kids against automatically choosing the company with the lowest rates. I truly believe that you do get exactly what you pay for in our business.”
Greiner concurs. “Parents should keep in mind that price does matter. If the service is very inexpensive there’s a reason for it. A limousine company’s overhead is very high, so understandably its service prices reflect this,” he says.
“Parents need to do their homework and research the limousine company they’re interested in booking with,” Greiner says. “If nothing else, they should make sure the company is legally licensed in the state of Michigan.” Greiner says the GLLA’s Web site contains information on what constitutes a reputable chauffeured transportation provider. There is also a link to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (DOT), which regulates limousines. According to Greiner, Satisfaction Limousine received the highest rating issued by the U.S. DOT for satisfactory operation, which is a strong selling point for parents. Silver recommends parents choose a company that is a member of a local limousine association. Upon contacting the company, they should ask how it solicits new chauffeurs, if it does background checks and drug testing on chauffeurs, if it provides complimentary soda to teens, and, most importantly, if it has a prom contract with terms and acknowledgement, he says.
“It’s critical that limousine companies set specific prom guidelines for its chauffeurs to follow,” says Mezger. “Of equal importance is informing customers of these policies and putting them in writing, eliminating any potential misunderstandings.”
Prom Guide Promotes Chauffeured Transportation In every issue of Prom Guide, an annual magazine distributed to high schools from New York to California, as well as on its Web site (www.PromGuide.com), publisher and founder Garfield Bowen spreads the word to millions of teens on prom safety.
“We have a long-standing relationship with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving),” says Bowen, whose magazine strongly recommends the use of chauffeured transportation for prom-goers because it is safe and fun.
“Limousine companies also can be very resourceful as far as what to do after prom. They often have great suggestions and discount passes for restaurants, cruises and more,” Bowen adds.
But when it comes to safety, Bowen offers this suggestion to limousine companies that book proms: “It’s not enough to have a signed contract stating that teens will not use alcohol or drugs. The dangers of these substances need to be thoroughly explained to them.”
Bowen also places responsibility on parents. “They need to investigate a limousine company before booking a service. They should look for one that won’t be any less lenient than they would be with their kids. Everyone involved — parents, their kids, the limousine company and the chauffeur — needs to be on the same page when it comes to prom safety.”
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