November 21, 2004

U of C gets serious about drunk van

Seasoned passengers of the late-night van are accustomed to its slow response time, unanswered phone line, and uncooperative drivers¬ómuch to the surprise of the UCPD, which runs the service.

Communication gaps were apparent on Wednesday afternoon when members of the Student Government Transportation Committee (SGTC) had an informational meeting with Officer Jo Cathy Roberts, the campus crime prevention officer, to discuss the service. "To my knowledge, I have never heard anything negative about the van service," Roberts said at the meeting. "That's why I was so surprised to hear about these problems."

Revamping the late-night van service has been a priority for SG this year. Two of the slates put the issue in their platforms last spring.

The SGTC met with Roberts to get the facts before making concrete plans to restructure the service. "We decided the best course of action was to get the most information possible and decide how best to proceed," said SGTC chair David Courchaine, a second-year class officer.

The students told Roberts there were three main problems with the service. At the top of the list was the long waiting time. "It's really not an exaggeration to say that sometimes you can be waiting 40 to 45 minutes," Heidi Reid, a second-year class officer, said.

Besides causing inconvenience, the slow vans pose safety concerns. "I think students sometimes forget it is also a security issue that if you need to get home and you wait outside for a long time, it's dangerous," Ben Walsh, a third-year class officer and a member of SGTC, said before the meeting.

Roberts said that her concern was "that you guys are safe at two or three in the morning."

The van's slow response time might be alleviated soon when drivers begin to use two vans rather than one. The UCPD hopes to have its new van in operation by January, Roberts said.

Also discussed was the complaint that students' calls are often unanswered, which Roberts attributed to the fact that the UCPD employs only three drivers. This number does not allow replacements if any of the drivers are sick, Roberts said.

During the meeting, Roberts was unsure about the responsibilities of each driver. Later, however, she explained that there is a system. "[Sergeant Gwen Jackson said that] if all three people are here, one is in the office dispatching the calls. If one or two are here, then they're both in the car with the cell phone."

Roberts and the students thought of a way for the UCPD administration to increase the van-service staff. "I don't know why they stopped letting students drive the van because when they did there weren't these problems," she said. "Maybe we should consider hiring students again. You guys would know where students were and be sensitive to their needs."

Though Roberts was the only one at the meeting who could remember students ever having driven the vans, Jeff Collier, the UCPD assistant director, later said that the UCPD administration was still open to hiring students. "There's no rule or anything that students can't do it," he said. "It wasn't a plan or anything. It just happened since no students applied for the job."

Courchaine also brought up problems in dealing with the drivers. He cited cases where drivers refused to give students estimates on the van's arrival time or when they were taken on unnecessarily long routes.

Reid defended the drivers by saying that students on the van sometimes have a "bad attitude."

Reid added that she has heard of many students who see the van driving by, "even when they flag the van down."

Roberts was vague about whether or not it is a policy of the drivers to answer the calls in the order they are received, regardless of the callers' location.

"We understand why they're rude but maybe we can pay them more to be nice," Courchaine said.

The overall tone of the meeting was positive. "I want to emphasize that we do love the service and we're glad it's there," Courchaine said.

Everyone agreed that a second meeting would be necessary to tie some of the loose ends. The SGTC hopes to talk to Sergeant Kevin Overpack, the watch commander who is on duty when the van operates, Jeff Collier, the UCPD assistant director, and the three van drivers in the coming weeks.