Is spring break safe? Public officials warn students of increased danger as vacations begin
Along with March Madness and St. Patrick's Day, March marks the start of spring break: a week when college students flock to warm destinations and drench themselves in liquor, tanning oil and salt water.
It also beckons danger.
In recent years, public officials have raised concerns that spring break is becoming rowdier, putting college students at risk. Last March, during one of the busiest Saturdays of the season, crowds overwhelmed South Beach's entertainment district in Florida, causing police to temporarily shut down a busy causeway.
In Texas, home to popular spring break sites including South Padre Island and Port Aransas, drunken driving is an ongoing issue. Last year, Texas had more than 400 crashes involving young drivers under the influence of alcohol during the period when students come for spring break, said Emily Parks, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. The accidents resulted in 11 deaths and nearly 40 injuries. It wasn't clear how many of those involved were in Texas for spring break.
Public officials in some spring break hot spots are preparing an aggressive response to the seasonal uptick in crime, including a heavier police presence and safety campaigns that urge young travelers to obey the law. Spring breakers in Miami Beach will notice fliers on trolleys and in hotels, reminding them of Florida's public disturbance, drug and alcohol laws. It's part of a new campaign titled, "Come on vacation, don't leave on probation," which highlights the consequences of common spring break crimes. Anyone caught smoking marijuana or drinking in public will be arrested, the police website warns.
More police will monitor the beach and popular strips, Miami Beach Police Chief Daniel Oates said. His agency received an additional $700,000 in funding from the city so more officers can work overtime throughout March.
Police decided to take a harder line on student misbehavior after an increase in crime during recent spring breaks. Oates said substance abuse and sexual assault have been among the toughest challenges the department faces.
In the fall, Oates sent out more than 200 letters to universities and colleges and to national fraternity and sorority organizations, imploring them to educate students on proper spring break behavior if they visit Florida.
"We mean it when we say this behavior won't be tolerated," he added.
Transportation and public safety agencies in Texas launched a similar initiative, called "Plan While You Can," to encourage spring breakers to drive sober or have designated drivers. Police will be out in the Port Aransas region looking for drunk drivers, Parks said.
Safety concerns have also arisen at popular spring break destinations outside the United States. The State Department has issued travel advisories for the Bahamas and Mexico, urging travelers to exercise "increased caution" in those countries. The advisories do not rise to the level of warnings against travel but note that criminals target visitors for sexual assault, kidnapping and robbery.
In some cases, travel warnings are more dire. Jalisco state in Mexico, which includes popular getaway Puerto Vallarta, for example, has a Level 3 travel warning, which encourages tourists to reconsider visits, on the State Department's website.
"If the government says you shouldn't travel there, the risks are serious," said Sheryl Hill, CEO of Depart Smart Inc., a travel safety company that works with college students.
Thousands of college students are expected to descend on Mexico for spring break this month. StudentCity, a popular travel service that about 25,000 spring break vacationers are expected to use this year, has trips planned for Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.
StudentCity spokesman Michael Rush said the company monitors travel advisories but typically doesn't announce lower-level warnings to students. Vacationing students receive general safety tips through email, including an on-site emergency contact. Company representatives meet students at airports and hotels, and monitor sponsored events.
StudentCity started sending students to Mexico at the beginning of March.
"Everything's going smoothly," Rush said. "I've actually noticed students are generally more aware of smarter safety practices. . . . We've had less damage reported at hotels compared to 10, 20 years ago."
Josh Levinson, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Iowa who is planning on going on StudentCity's trip to Nassau, Bahamas, said he was unaware of the lower-level travel advisory for the region.
"I haven't really thought about the safety aspect because we're going to be at a nice resort," he said. "I think the group I'm with has common sense, so I'd hope if something were to happen, we'd be able to figure it out."
Other students said they've paid attention to the heightened dangers of spring break and prepared. Sarah Tew, a 22-year-old senior at James Madison University who is visiting Miami Beach this week for spring break, said she has noticed "the police are cracking down."
Tew said she has her name, allergies, medications and emergency contact information set as her phone's lock screen, and shared her location with the people she's traveling with via the "Find My Friends" iPhone application.
Spring breakers can take a few easy steps to protect themselves. Travelers can enroll in the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive travel and security updates to their phone about their destination. Hill, of Depart Smart, recommends college students check their travel insurance, to make sure they have the appropriate coverage if they're traveling outside the United States.
College students may also consider visiting a travel clinic to make sure they have the proper vaccinations and medicine for their trip.
Public officials don't want to stop spring breakers from partaking in the sun-soaked, collegiate tradition - they just want them to party smarter.
"We want people to enjoy one of the best vacation spots in the world, but for their own safety, they need to engage in responsible behavior," Oates, the Miami Beach police chief, said.
This article was written by Morgan Smith, a reporter for The Washington Post.