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Spring break can kill you, so stay safe

It has been a cold, miserable winter, and many college students are fleeing south for spring break.

But as they throw swimsuits, sunglasses and flip flops into suitcases, the proverbial parent (in many cases, concerned RA's and graying administrators) is watching over their shoulder and begging: Please don't die. Or catch an STD. Or land in a TJ hospital with alcohol poisoning. Or try illegal substances. Or drop out of school to teach tourists how to surf.

They have a point. Spring break can be an unhealthy, unsafe and downright dangerous week if students don't utilize at least some of the safety tips on the long lists handed out in the dorms.

Last week Catholic University in the District organized a marathon of spring-break-prep events: Learn how to safely flirt, while drinking (root)beer and mocktails! Discuss traveling in foreign countries while eating Mexican food! Watch the Natalee Holloway movie! Strap on beer goggles and try to drive across the law school lawn!

But their overarching message is simply stated in a pledge they ask students to take: "I understand that my friends are some of the most important people in my life; that is why, this Spring Break, I promise to keep them safe as much as I possibly can, physically, emotionally and spiritually."

The same message (minus the religion bit) is being reiterated on campuses across the country. I read through lots of lists of safety tips and cobbled together some of the best advice out there.

Make sure your travel agency isn't sketchy Before you pack your bags, know what kind of transportation, housing, food and beverages are included in your travel package. If you don't know anything about the agency, call your state's consumer protection department to find out if there are any complaints against the agency, recommend the University of Louisville Police.

Planning to flee the country? You will need a valid passport to do so. You might need a vaccination. Read up on a country's laws before you get there (remember 2,500 Americans are arrested abroad each year, about half on narcotics charges). Check in with the embassy. Do not accept packages from strangers (even really cute, good looking strangers). And watch this kind of boring, but very informative YouTube video from your State Department buddies.

What happens on spring break, stays on spring break -- unless you get herpes If you are going to have sex, make sure to protect yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tons of info if you need to know more.

* Review your high school driver's ed handbook Remember all of those basic driving guidelines? Use them. Pay attention, don't trust other drivers, don't speed, and wear your seat belt are just a few tips on a list of 70 compiled by Road Trip America. And make sure you aren't too tired to get behind the wheel -- take AAA's "Drowsy Quiz" to learn more.

* Watch your back When you need to get cash out of an ATM, take a group of people with you and "do a full 360-degree scan, looking completely around you to see if anyone is hanging out where they shouldn't be," recommends Safespringbreak.org. Don't carry any more credit cards or other documents than needed, and keep your money in two places so you will have a backup in case you are robbed, Ohio State University's Office of International Affairs suggests. Marietta Colleges adds that if you are robbed, some more tips">do not resist: "Give up any money, jewelry, or other valuables. You can always replace material things. Call 911 as soon as you can."

* Don't get too comfortable in that motel room Lock your door and don't open it for strangers. Don't overcrowd elevators. Above all, do not climb on balconies or sit on the railings, the University of Iowa Police recommend.

* Drink responsibly. Seriously. The biggest spring break dangers all seem to come back to alcohol. The BACCHUS Network, a peer alcohol education group, offers these tips:

• Remember, impairment begins with the first drink. Choose not to drink if you are driving, or be safe with a designated driver.
• Respect other peoples' right, and your own, to choose not to drink.
• Respect state laws and campus policies.
• Stay out of dangerous situations involving alcohol, whether in a car, bar or bedroom.
• If a friend drinks to the point of passing out, alcohol poisoning is a real danger. If you're concerned, seek medical attention. Better safe than sorry!

And Marietta College in Ohio adds some more tips:

• Plan ahead on how much you plan to drink. Talk with a friend about when the friend should intervene and make a plan for how you will return to your hotel. Stay with someone who knows you when you are drinking -- don't wander off alone. Make sure someone in your group is not drinking or is drinking responsibly so they can get everyone home safely.
• Only accept drinks from a licensed bartender or drinks that you pour yourself. You put yourself at risk for receiving an altered beverage if you don't know the source of the drink.
• If a member of your group passes out, turn them on their side to prevent choking and call 911 immediately.

* Sexual assault is a serious concern Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to prevent a sexual assault, according to RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization. If you or someone you know is sexually assaulted, find a safe place and contact the police immediately.

Last year RAINN offered these spring break tips:

1. Trust your instincts. If you feel unsafe in any situation, go with your gut.
2. Even though you're on vacation don't let your guard down completely. Vacationing at a spring break destination can create a false sense of community with your fellow spring-breakers. In reality, the vacation destination is just like any city filled with strangers; treat it as you would any unfamiliar environment. Don't assume that someone you've just met will look out for your best interests.
3. Form a buddy system. When you are out with your friends, arrive together, check in with each other and leave together. Don't wander off alone. Make a secret "butt in" signal with your friends, talk about when the friend should intervene and agree to use it for uncomfortable situations. Don't be afraid to let a friend know if something is making you uncomfortable or if you are worried about your or your friend's safety.
4. Avoid being alone or isolated with someone you don't know and trust. If someone you don't know or trust asks you to go somewhere alone, let him or her know that you would rather stay with the group. Use any excuse you can think of to get out of a difficult situation.
5. Practice Safe Drinking. Don't accept drinks from people you don't know or trust. Never leave your drink unattended, and if you do lose sight of it, get a new one. Always watch your drink being prepared, and when possible try to buy drinks in bottles, which are harder to tamper with than cups or glasses.
6. Be aware of your surroundings. Check out your surroundings before you go out and learn a well-lit route back to your hotel or rental property. Avoid putting music headphones in both ears so that you can be aware of what's going on around you, especially if you are walking alone. Be alert and aware at all times.
7. Secure your room or property. Test the window and door locks of your room or rental property. Keep the doors locked at all times, even when you are in the room. Don't open your door to anyone you are not expecting, or let anyone in your room until they have identified themselves and their purpose. This includes resort or cruise personnel. Remain alert and cautious, particularly if unusual activity is noted in or near your lodging accommodations.
8. Make a Plan. Establish a meeting spot in the event your friends get separated. Before you go out, identify a safe way to return to your hotel or rental property.
9. Be Prepared. Always carry emergency cash and keep phone numbers for local cab companies handy. Have your charged cell phone with you. If your cell phone does not work outside of the country, consider renting one that does for the duration of your trip.
10. Report suspicious behavior. Tell resort or cruise personnel if anyone, including a fellow guest, passenger or crewmember, approaches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.

While this is still a long, long list, I am sure there is some very important safety tip that I forgot -- so shoot me an e-mail and let me know what I missed.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  March 11, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Spring Break  
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