On a mission to fight drunk driving

If she couldn't do anything to stop excessive teenage drinking, Micayla Vermeeren wanted to do something to prevent anyone else from getting hurt or dying in a related car accent . And in some cases, from dying.

Spurred by the death of Kelly Morehouse, who died in a traffic incident involving an alleged drunk driver, the 18-year-old senior from Huntington Beach High School took it upon herself to start a free designated-driving service on Facebook called HB On Call.

"I'm not trying to condone any of the behavior that's going on — underage drinking, drug usage, any of that stuff," she said. "But just because I don't condone it doesn't mean I can ignore it. For me and the rest of the community involved with HB On Call, we may not like that it's happening so we might as well do what we can."

The Facebook group has about 180 members; 50 of them volunteer to give car rides to those who are intoxicated, with the rest performing other related duties, Vermeeren said. The majority of the members are high school students from throughout the Huntington Beach Union High School District, she added.

"We've got at least two volunteers from each school in the district," Vermeeren said. "Even though it started in Huntington Beach High School, it's branched out."

Five students have used the service in the program's week and a half of existence. As a graduating senior herself, Vermeeren is anticipating an influx of calls once school lets out.

She understands the legalities of the matter. Vermeeren makes sure that all the drivers are licensed and have no driving restrictions, she said. For safety, she tells the volunteers it's OK to bring another sober person with them if they're driving multiple people.

"No good deed goes unpunished, even if you are providing a sober ride," she said. "If you get pulled over, it's on you. So we do want to keep our drivers as safe as possible. We have a huge consideration for them as well as the passengers that we're carrying. We're trying to make sure that we cover our bases and stay within the legal parameters."

Huntington Beach Assistant Principal Jason Ross said he was amazed at what Vermeeren started. Tipped off by a staff member, Ross went on Facebook and checked out the group.

"A lot of times, students come to us and say they want to do something," he said. "She just did it on her own. She saw a need that wasn't being fulfilled. It's a way that she could help improve the school's climate, support students and provide a safe avenue for students who may drink to make it home safely."

He said he knows the ills of underage drinking at the high schools and looks at HB On Call as a precautionary tool.

"Just telling them no [not to drink] is not realistic in the world that we live in," Ross said. "The message is no, but we need to have a backup plan."

Huntington Beach Police Lt. Mitch O'Brien wrote in an email that he likes programs that prevent intoxicated people from driving but urges parents to check with their insurance companies to forestall any problems.

"Also, I would caution the drivers that intoxicated passengers are not always pleasant and easy to get along with — just ask any taxi cab driver," he wrote. "I'm not sure high school kids are the best choice for this program."

Drunk Rescue is familiar with Vermeeren's program. The Sunset Beach-based company provides a similar service, driving intoxicated people home, but charges customers $4 per mile, said co-founder Davlyn Sousa De Freitas.

The company has grown from five drivers in 2012 to 33 and has expanded its service area to the majority of South Orange County, Sousa De Freitas said. The business recently served its 2,800th customer.

Sousa De Freitas said that in the next few years, the company will be looking to branch out to Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

He said he admires what Vermeeren is doing, having started the company the same way she started HB On Call. The businessman

also pointed out that these students are putting themselves in risky situations.

"The passengers that are intoxicated are usually out of their minds," Sousa De Freitas said. "It's a lot of liability. Though these kids are trying to do a good thing, they're not qualified to do so, per se."

Vermeeren said she doesn't want the program to fall by the wayside. Though she's graduating and heading to Cal State Long Beach in the fall, she's working with incoming high school seniors and other underclassmen to keep HB On Call alive.

Ross said he'll arrange for Vermeeren to work with Huntington's PTSA [Parent, Teacher and Student Association] to better organize the program.

"The Huntington Beach community has gone through a lot of tragedies in relation to drug and alcohol usage," Vermeeren said. "It affects everyone in our community, and I think it's such an amazing and beautiful thing to see the youth of our community coming together to do what we can to make sure that things like this don't happen again under our watch."

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