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Nassau’s free after-prom rides aim to curb teen deaths

Dr. Alexander Axelrad of Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola

Dr. Alexander Axelrad of Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola supports a plan to offer free taxi rides to teen promgoers in Nassau so they don't drink and drive. Credit: Chris Ware

Teenagers in Nassau County who have too much to drink on prom night can take a taxi home free in an initiative aimed at preventing alcohol-related deaths and injuries.

This will be the second year in which taxi company owner Larry Blessinger has put his five firms and fleet of 400 cars on call for those needing a safe way home: “No questions will be asked, no reports will go back to the parents,” he said. A call to 516-326-9090 will bring a taxi to anywhere in Nassau County.

He volunteered his fleet after Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola reached out to him last year. Winthrop is one of three Level 1 trauma centers in Nassau County handling the most serious traumatic wounds and injuries.

For teens, the senior prom represents the end of high school and the end of “a chapter in their young lives,” said hospital chief of trauma Dr. Alexander Axelrad. “We are here today to do our best to ensure there is a next chapter . . . there is nothing more devastating” than having to inform parents and siblings that a teenager has died from an alcohol-related car crash.

At a news conference Wednesday outside the hospital’s trauma unit, he outlined measures he said would lessen the chances for a prom night crash, including a three-passenger limit in teen-driven cars, with no texting or loud radios. He advised parents to know their teens’ plans, to ask for phone calls throughout the night as they changed destinations, and make it clear they are willing to pick up an inebriated promgoer “with no repercussions.”

“We have statistics saying drivers under the age of 21 are 10 percent of licensed drivers, but are responsible for 17 percent of the fatal alcohol-related crashes,” he said. “Underage drinking is responsible for 1,900 auto fatalities annually across the country.” And, he said, 55 percent of teens killed in accidents were not using seat belts.

Sarah Haiken, 17, of Melville, offered the perspective of a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a group she and her mother Cheryl joined four years ago after a family friend died in a 2009 crash caused by a repeat offender. She said it was her sense that the idea of a designated driver is “definitely prevalent among teenagers, but instead of a sober designated driver it’s become the least drunk driver . . . I think teenagers think they are invincible and don’t think things can happen to them.”

Prom season falls into what acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter called the “100 deadliest days,” beginning over the Memorial Day weekend when police aggressively focus on DWI arrests and enforcement of laws aimed at those who supply alcohol to underage drinkers, whether social hosts at parties, or bartenders at establishments with a “propensity” to serve those under 21.

“We’re not going to tolerate underage drinking,” he said, joining commissioner Gregory May of the Nassau County Taxi and Limousine Commission, Blessinger and Mineola High School principal and students at the news conference. May said his commission began inspecting limousines outside proms Tuesday night for drugs and alcohol. None were found, he said.

Nassau County police arrested 50 drivers for DWI over the holiday weekend as of Monday morning, six more than last year.

Blessinger, vice president of All Island Transportation, and owner of Ollie’s Taxi and Airport Service, Taxi Latino, All Island Yellow Cab and Glen Belle Taxi, with a total of 400 cars and 22 offices throughout the county, said that last year the free taxi service “was definitely utilized, without a doubt . Our main objective is to save people’s lives. If you save one person’s life, you can’t put a monetary figure on it.”

Axelrad said the initiative to provide free transportation was intended to promote the “concept if you go to the prom, to not drink; if you drink, drink in a controlled environment” and if there is drinking, “not to drink alcohol and drive.”

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