This semester, University of North Texas students who go out with friends can get free soft drinks and food if they show certain businesses they are that night’s PASS — the person appointed to stay sober.
In a pilot program by the Texas Department of Transportation, UNT students can download and use an exclusive Facebook application, PASS, to “crowdsource” their friends to find a sober driver for the night and avoid drunk driving and other dangerous behavior.
Promoted on campus by the UNT Substance Abuse Resource Center (SARC) and supported by more than a dozen local businesses with free incentives for the PASS, the app aims to encourage students to have a sober person with them when going out drinking.
“Really, however the students want to use it, it gives them potential to take ownership and do whatever they want — we’re just facilitating it for them,” said Robert Ashford of SARC. “We just want to get the mentality of sobriety to drive, sobriety to walk you home — you don’t need to do anything by yourself if you’ve been drinking or are under the influence.”
About a year ago, TxDOT marketing officials visited UNT to try to raise awareness of the first version of the program, for weekends or holidays, Ashford said. The coordinator of SARC saw the booth wasn’t getting much traffic and set up a water pong table, gathered a crowd and began to form a relationship with the TxDOT representatives.
For this academic year, UNT will be one of three schools in the state to test the application to see how it works, said Val Lopez, public information officer with the Fort Worth district of TxDOT.
“What we’re doing now is working with universities to help launch the app, and working with them to integrate the app into their campus culture through various campus organizations and activities,” he said. “[The schools] will help us evaluate the effectiveness of the app in different environments.”
SARC has taken ownership of marketing the app, providing wristbands and interacting with students on campus. The two biggest pushes that they make to try to get students to download the app are that it’s on Facebook and it’s free, Ashford said.
Additionally, all of the information exchanged on the app is secure between the users, as university officials do not have access to the application. UNT and TxDOT are free of all liability regarding the app’s usage, officials said.
The application crowdsources a user’s friends in Denton, asking them if they would be willing to be a sober driver on a particular night, Ashford said. Sober students can volunteer as a PASS and can request their friends pay them for a seat in the car, adding an incentive for sobriety.
The extra incentive comes from local businesses that learned about the program through the marketing promotions and decided to offer extra incentives of their own. For example, at Rip Rocks, if the PASS shows the bartender their badge from the Facebook app, they get unlimited free soda and a free appetizer, said Amanda Hooten, a manager at the bar.
“We want to make sure everyone is getting home safe,” she said. “We hope to [see the program grow] — we see a lot of potential for it and we’re backing it. We think it’s a great idea.”
For UNT, the main aim of the program is to change the culture of drinking on campus, Ashford said. Making it common that someone should stay sober all night will help save lives, he said.
“It’s all about harm reduction,” he said. “We know they are going to go out. We know they are going to drink — it’s part of the college life, college atmosphere and the scene. We just want them to do it smartly.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.