With discussions over SUSU’s plans to axe the Safety Bus taking place at the Union Council meeting today, the Soton Tab decided to assess the service for ourselves. I went along to spend a night in the famous vehicle first-hand.
The bus picked me up at 11:30pm, at which point there were no passengers. Alex, the driver for the night, and Lowri, the chaperone- whose job is to collect money and assist any passengers who need help (with a large ‘chunder’ bin bag a the ready)- told me things were fairly quiet at the moment.
We drove to the famous Portswood strip, where- as anticipated on a Tuesday night at the end of exam period- the queue was long and bustling with tipsy students. Alex parked up in the usual Safety Bus spot between Aldi and the Sobar entrance, and we waited.
After around five minutes, a weary-eyed fresher came from the queue and asked if she could be taken home to Mayflower Halls. She wasn’t drunk, but was alone, having lost her friends, so paying £2 to be taken home in the Safety bus as opposed to a taxi was a far more secure and cheap option.
We waited for the bus to fill up a bit more before setting off. A few more students in a similar situation to the first, separated from their friends, were relieved to hop into the Safety Bus as an alternative to taking a taxi alone.
By the time we’d dropped off the early leavers and returned to Bevois Valley, the Sobar queue had died down a little. We got our first stumbling drunk at around 12:45am, in the form of a fresher being propped up by her friends. “Do you go to Monte?”, one of them chimed in desperation. Of course, the answer was yes.
Although she wasn’t vomiting, it was clear that a taxi wouldn’t take the girl in the intoxicated state she was in, and so the Safety Bus was a saving grace. Upon arrival at Monte, her friends couldn’t thank us enough, and handed over £2 each before taking their friend to bed. As we watched them stumbling safely to their flat, chaperone Lowri told me:
This student’s situation completely sums up why the Portswood safety bus is necessary– and why having constant access to a vehicle is essential.
From my experience, what is usually best for most students is to simply get them home and ensure they are cared for by halls resident support or housemates once there.
On the way back to Portswood, we spotted a small commotion on the corner between Bevois Valley Road and Bevois Hill, just up from The Hobbit.
A boy was sitting on the pavement leaning against the wall, while two older and more sober-looking students were knelt down speaking to him. Alex pulled the bus up beside them and we asked what was going on.
The two more sober students looked relieved on seeing the Safety Bus. They explained that they’d found the guy- a Monte fresher- sitting alone and drunk, and were trying to help him. Lowri helped get him into the bus, and we soon set off to deliver him to Monte halls.
It was clear that the fresher was not in what one would class a ‘dangerous’ state that would warrant calling emergency services, but at the same time, being barely able to walk or talk, it was highly unlikely that any taxi would have taken him home.
Essentially, the two older students trying to help him were doing all the “trained support personnel” that SUSU want to bring in would be able to do. One of them was first aid trained, but this isn’t what the drunk fresher needed. All he needed was a safe ride home. As we drove to Monte, Lowri said:
Taxis will not take any student that is vomiting or unable to walk in a straight line and calling an ambulance is rarely justifiable. The Safety Bus service as it is is the only option in such circumstances, and removing it will negatively impact student welfare at night.
Upon arrival at Monte, driver Alex went to inform reception staff that we were dropping off a drunk student. But before anyone came out to assist him, the fresher had independently (though with some drunken difficulty) opened the bus door and began stumbling unassisted (and heavily swaying) towards his block.
A couple of Monte security guards followed to watch that he got in but, again, this showed that drunk students don’t necessarily need hands-on assistance, but rather a vehicle that is willing to simply transport them from the Portswood pavements to their accommodation.
The night saw several cases like that of the two Monte freshers I’ve described. Students- mainly first years- going a little too hard, taxis refusing them and the Safety Bus coming to the rescue and transporting them safely back to halls.
During the night, it became clear to me that the Bevois Valley Safety Bus is an asset to SUSU, and that the students are extremely grateful for it. Every trip that we made was met with repeated thank yous to the driver and the chaperone.
When I asked fresher Megan Spriggs about the Safety Bus as we drove her and her friends to Glen Eyre, she said:
Without the Safety Bus how would you get your friend back if they were awful and it’s not your fault but a taxi wouldn’t take them? The bus works so well. We love it!
I quickly came to question SUSU’s claim that the Safety Bus from Bevois Valley “negatively impact[s]” on students’ welfare because “nightclubs in Bevois Valley are taking advantage of the service by utilising it to negate their duty of care to their customers”. During a quick chat with Nev, Sobar bouncer, he said:
What many fail to realise is that students predrink full stop. It’s the norm. And we understand and embrace it. We totally get that, but sometimes the end result of that is not always our problem. They could be somewhere else, and then they come here and we’re looking after them.
Nev affirmed that if the Safety Bus were to be scrapped, both Sobar and Jesters would be forced to get a private vehicle to escort drunk students home:
At the end of the day, I would rather somebody get into this bus and go home safely, rather than stagger up the road. Go into other clubs, and they just go off somebody and nobody cares. But for us, this is our bread and butter so it’s important that we look after them.
If the Safety Bus is scrapped I think us and Jesters would consider doing it privately.
What’s more, in light of my night in the Safety Bus, SUSU’s plans to “ensure that trained support personnel are present outside the Nightclubs in Bevois Valley […] to ensure students are feeling safe and can get home safely, with the ability to arrange for transport for vulnerable students where this is required and where no other option is available” lack clarity.
The students I witnessed the Safety Bus pick up and deliver home would not have benefited from being tended to on the pavement by staff. They were ready to go home, drink some water and get into bed, but with the taxis cautious about taking them, the Safety Bus was the only solution. One Safety Bus driver, Will Pearson, said:
Safety Bus drivers already receive basic first aid training. What further training these support personnel would receive? Ultimately, neither Safety Bus drivers nor any other SUSU support staff will be in a position to deal with genuine medical emergencies.
It is obviously not desirable to place unnecessary strain on the emergency services, but thankfully it is rare that calling 999 is justified and generally drunk students can be dealt with by taking them home, ideally accompanied by a friend.
Removing the Safety Bus would be eliminating this most common recourse.
Having witnessed a night in the Safety Bus first-hand, it is clear that it provides an important welfare service to students, and that scrapping it would lead to a host of new problems.
If it is a question of legality and accountability on SUSU’s part, the solution is not to simply withdraw from providing such an important service, leaving nothing in its place to match it.
SUSU must communicate with the club owners and come up with a sensible solution to ensure that students are not going to be stranded outside the clubs when all they really need is to be taken to their beds.
What do you think about plans to axe the Safety Bus? Would trained support staff outside the clubs match the service? Let us know in the comments.