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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

For hundreds of thousands of football fans, fall weekends are a time for tailgating - part picnic, part pep rally, part drinking party. Tailgating traces its roots to 1869 and what's believed to be the first intercollegiate football game, between Rutgers and Princeton. Fans arrived in carriages, bringing picnics. Since then, tailgating has grown to a point where there are concerns for public safety.

To investigate, we sent NPR's Greg Allen to Jacksonville, Florida, in an annual event known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREG ALLEN: It's an assault on the senses. People are milling, grills are smoking, music is blaring, and it's only 10 a.m. It's game day in Jacksonville. Nearly 85,000 fans are here for the annual football match-up between Florida and Georgia.

U: Go dogs! Go dogs!

ALLEN: There are as many Bulldog fans as Gator fans here, and the tailgating setups are elaborate. Chip Williams' tailgate is practically palatial.

SIMON: You got your grills, you got your TVs, your satellite dishes. You got to find the power, you got the food, a lot of beer - a lot of beer.

ALLEN: It's one of the big college football tailgating events of the year. The party traditionally starts the night before, in Jacksonville's riverfront entertainment district, then moves to the municipal stadium, where parking lots open at 6 a.m. It's a great football rivalry, and a great party. But in recent years, officials at the two universities have tried to rein in the celebration. In 2004 and 2005, University of Florida students died in pregame incidents. Southeastern Conference officials asked the television networks to stop referring to it as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Try telling that to Tricia Starling. She says officials may pressure TV announcers to give up on the name, but they won't succeed with the tailgaters.

SIMON: They never will.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: You've got a large glass here. What?

SIMON: It's probably 10 gallons. Yeah.

ALLEN: Yeah.

SIMON: Well, in the morning we do an orange juice drink, mimosas. And then we just finished that, so now we're doing a rum and Coke. It's going to be about - probably five, two-liters of Coke in there and a lot of rum.

ALLEN: On the side of the glass - no, bucket - it clearly says, World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail. And it's in the hands of Tricia's husband, Mike.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOOTING AND LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: You were just taking a drink out of the world's largest outdoor cocktail.

SIMON: Yes. And I was just talking about responsibility, too.

ALLEN: Not to worry. People in this crowd say they have a designated driver. All around the stadium, parties like this are in full swing. The city of Jacksonville welcomes the event, and puts hundreds of police officers on overtime to keep order. A big concern is underage drinking. This year at the game, Florida's Division of Alcoholic Beverages made 252 arrests. The secretary who oversees the division, Charles Drago, says underage drinkers can be a hazard to themselves and to others.

SIMON: Any drinking - or abusive drinking, I guess I should say - would create the potential for risky behavior. And when you have young people who are participating in that risky behavior, it can compound those problems and issues for public safety.

ALLEN: But so far, although a number of colleges and even some professional sports teams have taken steps to rein in tailgating - restricting the number of hours, for example - there has not been much attention paid to what happens once tailgaters get back on the road. Traci Toomey thinks that should change. She's an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. She and some colleagues recently conducted the first research on alcohol consumption by tailgaters. She says they measured the BAC, blood alcohol content, of people as they left the game to go home.

P: Those who had been tailgating were almost five times more likely to have a BAC above 0.08, which is the legal limit for drinking and driving. So they were much more likely to be legally intoxicated than those that had not been tailgating.

ALLEN: Toomey says the results of the study have yet to be published. She is hoping this and follow-up research will cast a light on the risk that can go along with the tradition and culture of tailgating. But she acknowledges that taking on tailgating is not for the fainthearted - as some colleges have learned when they've moved to restrict it.

P: The campus administrators really hear it from the alumni, who come back to the campus for that - the joy of tailgating and then for the sporting event. So I think that's a real issue for some of these campuses that are struggling with these alcohol issues with their students.

ALLEN: Many colleges and athletic conferences already have banned beer and alcohol sales in their stadiums. Much more difficult is determining what role schools - or professional teams - have in overseeing fan behavior when they're outside the stadiums.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

SIMON: You can hear other reports in our "Road Safety" series at npr.org.

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