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Soon after 19-year-old Brett Studebaker dropped off his parents at the airport in San Francisco one evening in 2010, he boarded a party bus to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday. The bus driver served him and other underage kids drinks from bottles of champagne. Doug and Linda Studebaker landed hours later in Newark, N.J., and while driving across a bridge to New York early that morning, they received a cellphone call from a deputy of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, who asked them to pull their car over.
“We did pull over, and he said, ‘We think that your son was killed in a traffic accident,'” Doug Studebaker said today. “They thought he was not driving because his body was thrown down the road. It was a very rainy night.” But Brett had been dropped off by the party bus and was driving his Audi at 2 a.m. on Feb. 6., 2010 when he crashed into a sound wall on U.S. Highway 101 near San Mateo and died at the scene. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. A male passenger in the car was seriously injured but survived the crash.
More than two years later, Assemblyman Jerry Hill and Brett’s parents Doug and Linda convened today at the family’s home in Burlingame to celebrate a new law aimed at tightening restrictions to prevent underage drinking on charter buses. Assembly Bill 45, which passed unanimously in the state senate and assembly, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday. The bill, set to take effect Jan. 1, will require party bus companies to determine whether anyone under 21 is on the bus. Under the law, people who reserve charter buses for parties and plan to serve alcohol must have an adult chaperone who is at least 25 years old on board to ensure that no minors are drinking. The chaperone would be legally responsible if anything were to happen to minors who were permitted to drink on the bus. Bus companies that fail to comply with the law would face a $2,000 fine and license suspension or revocation, and drivers could be charged with a misdemeanor. Bus drivers would be responsible for monitoring underage alcohol use on their buses, and if they find minors drinking, they must confiscate the alcohol and immediately terminate the bus trip or also face a $2,000 fine, license suspension or revocation and a misdemeanor charge. The bill is also meant to update laws regulating limousines in the 1980s, which made drivers responsible for people in the vehicles, but did not include chartered buses, Hill said.
At least two other young people have died as a result of alcohol use on party buses, including Natasha Noland, 25, of Santa Cruz, who was killed on July 27 after falling through an unsecured door of a bus onto state Highway 17 near Los Gatos. She had been fighting with a 20-year-old woman after both had been drinking alcohol. Hill said that the driver of the bus Noland was in felt he had “zero responsibility” for the underage drinking in the bus and what happened to the victim. “If this law had been in effect this year, that (Noland’s death) would never have happened,” Hill said. “The bus driver would have to take responsibility for any minors drinking in the bus.” Hill said he amended the bill, which is named in Brett’s honor, this summer to strengthen restrictions and penalties in the wake of news about Noland’s death. Many party buses are similar to mobile nightclubs with plush chairs, bars and even dance poles, and have become a national trend among young people, including in some cases underage minors.
Aurelio Rojas, a spokesman for Hill, said that many party buses can be seen on some nights lined up along Polk Street in San Francisco, and “all these kids come out stinking drunk.” “This is the choice for partying now,” Rojas said. “It’s a moving club, a discotheque. They bring bottles (of alcohol) with them, and the drivers look the other way.” Doug Studebaker said at the news conference at the family’s Fey Drive home this morning that the new law would hold bus companies accountable and prevent tragedies like the one that hit his family. “It’s a privilege to have this law named after Brett,” Studebaker said. “This has been a unifying thing for our whole family.” “I’m honored and happy that because of him, lives will be saved and awareness will be brought to this problem,” Linda Studebaker said. In recognition of Brett, who was a rock and jazz musician interested in sound recording, his parents have established a scholarship in his name in sound arts at Expression College of Digital Arts in Emeryville, where Brett was a student, his father said.
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