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Yesterday marked the official start of winter, which, in Flagstaff, can bring as much celebration as harm when temperatures drop, causing roads and walkways to freeze over. Residents and visitors to the region are encouraged to exercise caution and practice safe winter behavior, especially when partaking in festivities involving alcoholic beverages.

Intoxication-related accidents can lead to serious injury or even death, especially for those attempting to traverse through town on foot after an evening of drinking, like Northern Arizona University student Kain Turner, whose body was found partly submerged in a flood control channel near the Flagstaff train station Dec. 3. Police reports suggest that Turner was last seen walking alone – seemingly intoxicated – after being told to leave a downtown bar.

The Coconino County Public Health Services District (CPHSD) revealed that, from 2013 to 2018 year-to-date (Jan. 1 to Oct. 31), 11 county resident deaths were caused by exposure to excessive natural cold, seven of which were linked to alcohol. In the first 10 months of this year alone, alcohol has been connected to 48 percent of total unintentional county deaths.

Winter safety practices

Although the dangers of drinking in the wintertime exist, these accidents are largely preventable.

If possible, refrain from consuming alcohol, caffeine and other mood-altering substances, opting instead for warm, sweet beverages like hot chocolate or apple cider. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states drinking alcoholic or caffeinated beverages should be avoided in wintertime because, despite the warm feeling they seem to generate when consumed, these beverages actually cause your body to lose heat more rapidly due to the expansion of blood vessels.

The Mayo Clinic lists alcohol as one of the top risk factors for hypothermia, the condition when the body reaches dangerously low temperatures, causing organs to fail. Hypothermia and intoxication share many of the same symptoms, including slurred speech and loss of coordination.

Alcohol not only causes rapid heat loss directly from the skin’s surface, it also reduces shivering and can affect judgment about proper winter clothing and the need to get warm. The Mayo Clinic therefore warns not to drink alcohol if you are going to be outside in cold weather or before going to bed on cold nights.

Taking adequate safety precautions during all wintertime travel and recreation is also advisable. Keep others informed of your whereabouts and wear several layers of clothing to not only protect skin from the cold, but also to remove gradually, if needed, in the case of sweating, which will further increase heat loss. Stay dry, avoid walking on ice and never ignore shivering, which is the first sign that the body is losing heat. Be prepared to take emergency shelter.

Safe rides for students

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The NAU Safe Ride program, a former service that provided students free transportation from downtown to campus between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. on weekends, was shut down Sept. 9 for evaluation after 12 years of operation.

Erin Stam, NAU director of Parking and Shuttle Services, said in an email the university is researching alternatives, but no definitive plan has been announced yet. She hopes for such an alternative to be in place by the spring, though.

“The use of the program has declined dramatically over the years and was no longer being used as the program intended, as most students were using the service to travel between points on campus,” Stam said. “Additionally, the program was a charter service, offered upon request of another department, and cost a significant amount of money to operate.”

Currently, there is no similar resource in place to freely transport students home on weekends after an evening of drinking. The closest alternative currently offered is Mountain Line bus route 10, which runs through 10:40 p.m. on weekdays, Stam said. NAU students have free access to Mountain Line services.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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