TOKYO — An American sailor has tapped a cloud-based technology for mobile phones to make it easier to have volunteers take turns driving drunk friends home, an initiative that has curtailed drunken driving among the Navy ranks.
The effort, tested at the Naval Sea Systems Command in Charleston, South Carolina, from February, could also help ease tensions on the southwestern Japanese island of Okinawa, where most of the U.S. troops in Japan are assigned.
Public outrage has flared on Okinawa because of the perception that the large military presence has led to more crime.
In the past month, a civilian worker and a sailor at an Okinawan base were arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after their cars crashed. That followed an arrest of a former U.S. Marine, suspected of raping and killing a woman on Okinawa.
Petty Officer Michael Daigle started his Saferide service, using San Diego-based Voxox's Cloud Phone, which costs just $15 a month.
It has been very successful so far, and Daigle expressed hopes it will be used throughout the Navy, including aircraft carriers that may dock at various ports around the world, as well as overseas bases.
"In the military, DUI tends to be a big issue mostly because it ruins your career and so we end up losing a lot of sailors," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday, using the acronym for "driving under the influence" of alcohol.
Across the military, a person caught drinking and driving can get kicked out, he said.
The technology works like a hotline, allowing intoxicated sailors to call a single number, which has been set up digitally so that the call goes to the various numbers of those sailors on standby, who have volunteered ahead of time to drive.
The volunteers are rewarded by getting better parking spaces. Other perks are being considered such as gift cards for gas, Daigle said. The system allows for up to 10 telephone numbers to work as an extension for that single telephone number.
Saferide is handy for the Navy because sailors aren't allowed to have mobile phones on the job. And so it has been hard for them to call up friends or colleagues to pick them up from bars or other places after a night drinking.
"The Navy has discussed it on a higher level about potentially in the long run considering implementing it Navy-wide, based on its success," said Daigle.
Daigle experimented previously with an outside taxi service, but that proved difficult to monitor, and service members were misusing it for other purposes, such as rides to airports.
The problems in Japan caused the U.S. military on June 6 to ban off-base drinking, but on Tuesday the U.S. Naval Forces Japan lifted the ban, noting "the performance of sailors across Japan has been outstanding."
Drunken driving is a serious problem, both in and outside the military, being behind more than 10,000 crash fatalities a year in the U.S., and costing nearly $50 billion in damages, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Daigle said five or six drunken driving cases were found over the last year at his naval command. Since Saferide started, there have been no cases.
Ron Kinkade, vice president of marketing and product strategy at Voxox, said Daigle was not a typical customer, which tends to be small businesses, such as online sellers, consultants, realtors, marketing services and others needing an easy to manage cloud-based system to connect remote employees.