Death, serious crash spur MMA to help keep drivers safe on road

Posted Feb. 06, 2011, at 9:43 p.m.

CASTINE, Maine — The death last fall of Maine Maritime Academy assistant football coach Richard Dykas in a car accident, close on the heels of another serious accident involving an MMA student, has spurred the college to find ways to keep students, staff and faculty, and the wider community safe on the road.

“We’ve been through too many funerals here,” said Jeff Loustaunau, the commandant of midshipmen and vice president for enrollment management.

The reports from police that alcohol was a factor in that fatal accident has increased the college’s focus on the use of alcohol and drunken driving, including increased police patrols along roads to the campus. But the new campus initiative also has a wider goal of developing a culture of safety and individual responsibility among MMA students.

“We have a responsibility to educate students,” MMA President William Brennan said in a recent interview. “But we also have a responsibility to keep them safe. And they have a responsibility to themselves and to each other, in the classroom, on the field and when they are off campus.”

The initiative has involved not only the campus community, but MMA also has partnered with other colleges, law enforcement and surrounding communities in an effort to find ways to reduce accidents in the area.

“The goal is to help students and help all of us make good decisions about their safety and everyone’s safety,” Loustaunau said.

The problem of alcohol and driving is not a new one, and it is not limited to MMA or to college students, according to Loustaunau. In conversations with leaders in surrounding communities, he noted that they recognized that there are people in their towns who drink and drive and also drive too fast.

But a tragedy such as the coach’s death has an impact on a small college community, according to Lance Meadows of Castine, a junior at MMA who serves on the new responsibility committee, along with a broad range of students, faculty and staff.

“The impact was equal to that of any unfortunate event,” Meadows said. “We all take that moment of pause. We all take that moment to reflect. Sometimes one moment is not enough. If the responsibility committee is successful, maybe we’ll give them two moments of pause.”

According to Dean of Students Diedra Davis, the college has an aggressive three-strikes alcohol policy on campus. Few students ever reach the third strike, which includes dismissal from the college, she said. To emphasize the school policies, the college has increased emphasis on driving safety, building on existing educational programs and bringing in outside programs such as a crash simulator and beer goggles.

The college also has sponsored safety stops where students and staff stop motorists — students and community members alike — on the road out of town to hand out goodie bags and remind them to buckle up and drive safely.

The strongest move so far, however, has been the effort to increase police patrols along the roads to Castine. With the support of officials in Castine, Penobscot and Orland, the college arranged to fund additional patrols by deputies from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department.

“The piece that has been missing is enforcement,” said Loustaunau. “There is no police force in Castine or in any of the surrounding towns. So for patrols or OUI roadblocks or anything like that, it’s up to the sheriff’s office.”

Sheriff’s deputies have been involved in educational efforts at MMA and also have beefed up patrols for special events at the college. The additional funds, however, has allowed the sheriff’s department to assign deputies for more patrols and spot checks, especially along Route 166, the main route out of Castine.

According to Davis, awareness of the increased patrols is, in itself, serving as a deterrent.

“The greater potential for getting caught is as good as being caught,” Davis said.

“We’re not out to get students — or others — we’re out to deter them and to stop them from making bad decisions. We want them to obey the law and to think more about having a designated driver.”

Although the news of the increased patrols was seen initially as a negative thing by some students, Meadows said it has gotten students talking.

“I think this has given us that second pause,” he said. “It’s gotten people talking and hopefully when they’re making plans for the weekend, talking about being safe. I think there is a lot of that going on.”

Although the focus has been on alcohol, Meadows said the focus of the initiative is bigger than that.

“It’s gong to involve a change of culture on the campus,” he said.

That won’t happen overnight, Meadows added.

College officials have met with their counterparts at other area schools including Husson University, the University of Maine and Unity College, in what is seen as an ongoing dialogue about policies on alcohol use, prevention and alternative programming and also to discuss programs for students that have worked.

They also have focused on making students aware of activities on campus and providing safe ways for them to enjoy activities off campus. They’re looking at ways to identify students who would serve as designated drivers and to develop “party tips,” that provide students with ideas on how to be safe if they are going to party. While Davis said there might be some criticism that it condones bad behavior, she said the main thing was to ensure that students are prepared.

“We’re asking students to be more responsible in doing things,” Loustaunau said. “At the same time, we want them to be college students and to enjoy the college experience, and still be around to tell the story at the end.”

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