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On the Cover: Spirited Redemption

 by Celeste Sepessy
 published on Thursday, August 31, 2006

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Katie E. Lehman / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 
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Katie E. Lehman / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 
Drinking drastically impairs your vision, so an activity such as driving could easily result in an accident./issues/arts/697428
Photo illustration by Katie E. Lehman / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Drinking drastically impairs your vision, so an activity such as driving could easily result in an accident.
 

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Enjoying keg parties and two-for-one shot specials doesn't make you an alcoholic - but it can make you a murderer. Here's how drinking and driving for the first time led to disaster for one typically responsible 21-year-old and how it could happen to you.

Stephen Cauley doesn't remember killing Benjamin Johnson.

The night of June 19, 2004, Cauley left a South Carolina bar, clumsily climbed into his '96 Eclipse and drove to a nearby Waffle House to sober up.

It was the first time he'd driven drunk. And it was the last time 68-year-old Johnson ever went on an early-morning bike ride.

"I don't remember ever getting into the car," Cauley, now a 24-year-old student at Paradise Valley Community College, gravely says.

Cauley was blacked out during the accident. Too drunk to realize he'd gotten in his car. Too drunk to comprehend he was driving. Too drunk to realize he'd just hit a man.

"I didn't hear a noise, didn't see any damage to the car," Cauley says.

An undercover cop, stationed at the Waffle House to nab drunken motorists, noticed Cauley's drunken staggering and mangled vehicle.

"They saw the damage done to my car," Cauley says, "and said there was a man that was hit and died on impact about two miles down the road."

Cauley was immediately arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a crime and felony DUI. Only 21 at the time, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison and four years of intensive parole.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics say three out of every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash.

But stories like Cauley's are more than just statistics. They're warnings. Yet many students, jetting from frat socials to keg parties throughout their college years, never heed these caveats until it's too late.

Cauley left behind Johnson. Then he left behind drinking.



Generational habit

Like many 21-year-olds, Cauley enjoyed drinking on weekends.

The Phoenix native was stationed at a South Carolina Air Force base, far from his family and closest friends. He was a member of Airmen Against Drunk Driving, a group that was on-call every other weekend to offer rides to inebriated airmen.

But ironically, Cauley still drank. "You can do 14-hour shifts for seven days a week," he says. "When you get off work, what else is there to do?"

Such socialized drinking can have many negative consequences, says David Bower, an alcohol specialist at the ASU Wellness and Health Promotion Center.

"Peer pressure is an amazing thing," Bower says, "especially when you're new to a college campus."

Just as Cauley may have felt obligated to participate in drinking with his friends, many students may feel like they have to drink in order to fit in with the university scene.

Bower, whose family history of alcoholism includes his own, says ASU's anti-alcohol campaign is crucial to keeping students safe.

"It's so important to get the correct information out to students," he says. "Not everybody's [drinking], and you don't have to do that to fit in."

Students also need to realize the risk of addiction to alcohol, Bower adds. In the United States alone, alcoholism affects as many as 15 million people.

Whether or not one thinks his or her drinking habits are normal, "alcohol is a problem for you if it causes problems in any part of your life," Bower says.

This can create an even larger problem for individuals whose families have histories of alcoholism.

"If there's alcoholism in the family, and I drink, there's a good chance that I could develop that problem myself," Bower says, adding that it's especially true along gender lines.

Conversely, one ASU student has been able to avoid alcohol precisely because of her exposure to it as a child.

Justice studies freshman Elizabeth de Saussure grew up in England. She remembers one time when her Scottish father, on his way to a local pub to meet his brother and their friends, dropped her off at a nearby childcare facility.

"Obviously, as a kid, it made me incredibly nervous," de Saussure says. On the way home, she could tell her father and whomever he'd been drinking with were acting "much stranger than usual and were incredibly difficult to communicate with and unstable."

This experience, combined with the fact that de Saussure rarely saw her father, has driven de Saussure to abstaining from alcohol.

She doesn't think she's missing much.

"If I wanted to hang out with people that are so easily amused," she says, "I would roll with preschoolers, you know?"



Misconceptions lead to mistakes

According to a survey done by The Arizona Institution of Higher Education Network, not all students share de Saussure's views on drinking.

In its 2004 survey of ASU, NAU and UA students' drinking habits, the institution found that students have staggering misconceptions about how much their peers drink.

When asked, freshmen thought that their peers drank an average of 5.5 alcoholic beverages the last time that they drank. In reality, the freshmen had only consumed an average of 3.3 drinks.



Because of these misperceptions, many college students may be prompted to go out and drink unsafe amounts. ASU Department of Public Safety Cmdr. Jim Hardina reports there were more than 600 alcohol-related arrests during the 2005-06 school year.

Of the 200 arrests made in the spring semester, 40 of them were DUIs. And in 11 of those cases, the drivers were underage.

Bower says after students drink in high school and college, they incorrectly believe that they've built up a tolerance to alcohol.

"[Students think], 'As my tolerance goes up, I think I'm OK to drive home,' " Bower says. "They justify to themselves, 'I'm not drunk.' "



Unreasonable reasoning

Cauley drove home that fateful night because he thought, "I'm not drunk."

Around 11:30 p.m., he got off work and received some phone calls from friends. He drove to The Plex, a bar within five or 10 minutes of the base, to meet them.

After two shots and two beers, the group was ready to move to a different place, a membership-only after-hours bar.

"Everybody was leaving, so I was going to get in the car with them," Cauley says. The driver "was somebody who always drives us she doesn't drink." But the car was full, so Cauley drove himself to the next bar.

"We always made sure we all had rides," he says. But after four hours of drinking, the two groups of friends Cauley was with decided to go home. Cauley believes he had about 10 drinks that night.

Both groups of friends thought Cauley would be riding home with the other.

Cauley tried to turn on his phone to call someone, but it died. He did not go back into the bar because the staff was already mad at him; his credit card had been declined earlier.

So Cauley once again got into his car. This time, he blacked out from extreme alcohol consumption, and while unconscious, he hit Johnson, who was riding his bicycle.

"The left side of the window was shattered, the sunroof was shattered, and then the light on the left was all broken," Cauley says, noting how Johnson "probably hit the left side, came up, hit the left side of the windshield, cracked the sunroof and then went over the car."

"The max penalty I was looking at was 40 years," Cauley says.

But he was lucky.

After the two parties' lawyers spoke and came to various agreements, Johnson's widowed wife agreed to lower the charge to involuntary manslaughter.

"She understood that I was in the Air Force, that I was young. I made a mistake," Cauley says.

The charge carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but because he was only 21 at the time of the crime, Cauley qualified for South Carolina's Youthful Offenders Act.

On Dec. 6, 2004, the judge sentenced Cauley to his 10-month prison term.

"I was very lucky that it worked out that way," says a remorseful Cauley. "If I would've been in another state, it could have easily been 12 years."



Proper prevention

Bower and other experts say there are ways to prevent accidents like Cauley's.

"No student wants to wake up after a night of partying wondering, 'What really happened? ' " Bower says.

That's why the Wellness and Health Promotion Center has started a "Party Smart" campaign to help students use alcohol responsibly.

"I don't think students are aware of, or have been educated on, the responsible ways to use alcohol," Bower says. "If I'm going to go out and party, I need to have a plan in place before I go out."

Bower says a smart party plan consists of making sure not to drink on an empty stomach. Instead, eat something high in protein. Next, make sure to alternate drinks drink one non-alcoholic drink in between each alcoholic one.

Similarly, keep an eye on the speed that you consume drinks, and realize that one "drink" might be smaller than you think a 12-ounce beer, one shot or 4 ounces of table wine.

"If I slam down five drinks in an hour, my [blood-alcohol level] shoots way up and stays up for a while before it comes down," Bower adds. "My body only metabolizes one drink per hour."

Undergraduate Student Government President Ross Meyer has additional advice for students while drinking.

"Put yourself in an environment where it's a controlled state," Meyer says. "If you're with people you know, you're more likely to drink in a safer way."

Meyer also suggests a desirable alternative would be to implement programs at ASU so students can have access to a sober driver if they need one."

And soon, management junior Merlin Ward will launch a program, Responsible Partying Made Simple, to do exactly that: provide a free taxi service for Tempe and Scottsdale bar-goers. (See "Drunk Dial-A-Ride" sidebar.)



Inside, looking out

For Cauley, prison was a "totally different world."

He spent most of his time there praying and reflecting upon his accident.

"Church was a big thing when I was there," he adds. "It gave me a lot of strength."

He also received a tremendous amount of support letters, phone calls and visits from family and friends.

"You've got to have as much support as you can from all areas," Cauley says, adding how without it, "you're going to start branching out and doing things that are wrong in there."

Cauley easily avoided the "horrible experiences that you could encounter in that situation" by realizing the extreme levels of stress felt by inmates. He learned to "say as little as possible because you may offend someone and not even know it."

Without any major altercations, Cauley's 10 months passed by. To this day, he maintains that he "didn't really feel right about 10 months" as an adequate punishment.

When Cauley returned to Arizona, one of the first things he did was look up Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"I needed to do this to help others," he says.

Cauley is working with MADD to come up with a forceful, emotional speech that he will eventually deliver at events to inspire students not to drink and drive.



Practice what you preach

Cauley spends countless hours trying to help others learn from his fatal mistake.

At Passport to ASU on Aug. 17, Cauley worked the UMADD table. His hope is that more students will join University Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Across the walkway, The Mad Hatters Knitting Club handed out free candy while one girl showed off a pair of handmade, striped socks.

Cauley stood by, eager to educate any ASU student who glanced at the UMADD table. He shuffled back and forth, adjusting a black baseball cap and straightening papers.

For the majority of the students in the hectic Ventana Ballroom, glances toward Cauley's booth were followed by disinterest. Cauley tried not to notice, remembering the UMADD shirt he wears represents a worthwhile national effort.

"You know your typical college student they look at sign and turn their cheek as if they didn't see it," says Cauley. He says this jokingly, but it obviously saddens him.

But the individuals students, parents, staff who stop and talk to Cauley at events like this more than make up for the passers-by, he says. He tells them about his life-changing mistake. He tells them that's why he so passionately champions this cause.

"It's that serious," he says. "People are getting killed because of drinking and driving."

Reach the reporter at: celeste.sepessy@asu.edu.



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