Driving under the radar

Marjorie Kirk

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Anna Jones and Madeline Berlin rocked back and forth on their heels, glancing at their phones.

Just after 10 p.m. a car pulled up beside the freshmen at the corner of Hilltop and Woodland avenues, and idled with its hazards on.

The women peered through the windows, trying to make out the unknown driver.

The car had no sign or decal indicating that the driver belonged to a certified company or program. It was an unassuming vehicle, nothing that would stand out to a late night UK Police Department patrol.

Without a second thought, the girls got into the backseat behind a man they didn’t know, trusting the system that their friends assured them was the proper way to get to an off-campus party.

With that, the unknown driver turned off his hazards, pulled onto Woodland Avenue, and drove off into the night.

A Police Chief’s Concern

Jones and Berlin were participating in a kind of anonymous taxi service where strangers pick up college women and haul them to frat parties.

It’s a system that fraternities have used for years as a way to prevent drunk driving, but the anonymous nature of the process has gone largely unscrutinized.

That’s something UK Police Chief Joe Monroe wants to change.

When the Kernel brought this system to his attention earlier this year, his thoughts immediately turned to his daughter, and other women like her.

“If you’ve got one or two females who are getting into a car with an unknown male to go to an off-campus location, that concerns me. Having a daughter college-age that concerns me,” Monroe said. “We’re going to have to talk to the Greek Life advisers to see how we can get this corrected.”

But the Kernel met with Monroe on Mar. 24, and more than a month later the system is unchanged.

“If you’ve got one or two females who are getting into a car with an unknown male to go to an off-campus location, that concerns me. Having a daughter college-age that concerns me.” — UK Police Chief Joe Monroe.

The practice technically abides by the UK Student Code of Conduct and no formal complaints have ever been filed to the Dean of Students’ office, but Chief Monroe said it is a system he does not think will continue because of risks to students’ safety.

This kind of driving system flies under the radar at many universities with big Greek Life programs.

Students from Louisiana State University, the University of Alabama, Indiana University and the University of Louisville confirmed that similar practices and systems exist on their campuses.

Fraternities select drivers on Friday and Saturday nights when they are hosting an off-campus party with alcohol.

They give the drivers’ phone numbers to a sorority officer, usually the social chair, who posts them on a private Facebook page.

Once the women finish getting ready, and sometimes already start drinking, they call the drivers, and tell them where they can pick them up.

Women then wait as Jones and Berlin did, outside their houses, dorms, or on the street for anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, depending on how backed up the drivers are.

Some women try to “steal” rides by hopping into cars they suspect to be fraternity drivers.

They pretend to be the women or group who called, not knowing the driver’s name, phone number, fraternity or even if he is with the driving system.

Monroe said this could put them in cars with dangerous people who could take advantage of them.

“It could very well be putting females in danger because of sexual assault because they’ve been drinking,” Monroe said.

Drivers have been pulled over for a number of infractions including speeding, having open containers of alcohol and overcrowding the cars.

On one night, 11 women were observed squeezing into a five-seat belted car.

They resorted to climbing into the trunk and sitting on each other’s laps to not become separated from their friends.

Monroe said cars with only three or four passengers are likely to skate by without being noticed by the police.

Monroe said he would inform his night-shift patrol officers of what to look out for, but just picking up the women is not illegal — even if they are underage and being taken to a party with alcohol.

“I think Risk Management will want to be involved on this too because if it has anything to do with university-sponsored chapters then that’s a concern for a liability,” Monroe said. “It’s definitely something that’s going to call for attention.”

Flying Under the Radar

Fraternities have been sued and kicked off college campuses because they were found liable for reckless endangerment or harm of individuals at their parties.

At UK, Phi Delta Theta was removed from campus until fall of this year because of a complaint in which a few people who attended one of their parties suspected they had been slipped inhibiting substances.

Susan West, director of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, said her office investigates liability issues like this when an off-campus party hosted by a number of UK students is believed to be associated with a Greek chapter.

“One of the questions (Student Conduct) might ask is, ‘Did you provide transportation to this event and how did you provide it if you did?’” West said. “If they said, ‘We had people assigned to drive and pick up people,’ then … that’s one of the factors that would indicate that it was an organization event.”

In addition to organizing transportation, West said using social media to advertise the event is another factor in whether or not it is an organization’s event.

“I know the national organization would not be wanting them to (list numbers),” West said.

Whenever a chapter is suspected of doing or endorsing something against the guidelines of their national organizations, representatives from nationals will visit campus to discuss disciplinary responses with members of the Office of Student Conduct like West and the officers in the chapter.

“I actually had a national representative from Kappa Alpha Theta in my office today,” West said.

But according to Liz Rinck, director of communications for Kappa Alpha Theta’s national organization, any such private disciplinary action is “confidential to the chapter.”

After the meeting with West, the Kernel asked Rinck why KAT’s Facebook page used for posting drivers’ numbers was taken down, but Rinck declined to comment.

UK administrators said they will not pursue a student code of conduct investigation into the driving system unless someone makes a formal complaint.

“If there is a complaint, if we are aware of something that we have questions about with respect to the Student Code of Conduct, of course Student Affairs is going to pursue that, just like they would any other potential violation,” said Nicholas Kehrwald, associate dean of student conduct and society of concern. “We haven’t gotten any complaints specific to this issue.”

Kehrwald said if a complaint were filed, the first two things they would look for are violations of the alcohol and hazing policies.

Kehrwald and West both said they have encouraged chapters not to operate volunteer driver programs, even if the intention is to prevent drunk driving, because they are hard to manage.

“There’s probably a couple of groups that I’ve worked with that said that their national organization does allow it, but they have to follow risk management steps,” West said. “So they have to be sober, be trained, be experienced drivers … (undergo a) background check, those type of things. The chapter would have to do all of that for their insurance to cover.”

Kehrwald said the Brothers Against Drunk Driving programs he has heard of were often the response to fatal drunk driving accidents that took the lives of chapter members.

Those programs started out with the intention of preventing future loss of life.

However, Kehrwald said even if the program was certified, national organizations still face liability if someone is harmed by participating.

“There are huge risk management and liability issues,” Kehrwald said. “There are a number of national organizations that have actually cancelled these programs.”

IFC President Cole Tipton said fraternities resort to volunteer driving programs to provide safe transportation to and from off-campus events with alcohol.

However, the drivers often stop giving rides before the parties end, leaving many underage and intoxicated students to find their own ways home.

“I don’t think all frats take you home, but some of them do, like Theta Chi sometimes. Sometimes they won’t drink all night and they’ll take you home,” undecided freshman Caroline Meiners said. “I take Lyfts on the way home a lot, or if it’s really close we’ll just walk with a lot of people.”

The Kernel reached out to all of the IFC fraternities and many of the NPC sororities for comment. All either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

Upholding the Status Quo

On Saturday the Kernel visited the corner of Hilltop and Woodland avenues one last time, when undecided freshmen Anna Jones and Madeline Berlin were observed crowding into a car with a group of women.

Just before they got in, Jones offered her own critique of the system she had used numerous times.

“I’ve heard from other people from other schools that it just sounds really stupid,” Jones said. “It sounds really sketchy probably from the outside — (I) don’t know this person, getting into their car, but do it anyway.” 

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include the parties who were reached out to, but declined to comment or did not reply.