John Elliot, center, leads about 2,000 in a HERO walk to encourage the use of designated drivers.

OCEAN CITY - Cheers, more cheers and even more cheers greeted more than 2,000 people marching Sunday on the Boardwalk from Sixth Street in hopes their efforts will convince people to use a designated driver instead of driving while intoxicated.

The annual HERO Walk is a major event for the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign, named in honor of the Egg Harbor Township resident and U.S. Navy ensign who lost his life to a drunken driver in July 2000. Elliott had graduated two months earlier from the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was named the outstanding Human Education Resource Officer, or HERO, for his class.

The campaign was started by his parents, William and Muriel, to promote using designated drivers.

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That campaign now is bigger than the Elliotts ever thought. It's active in New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky, and is making inroads in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The educational outreach that started in South Jersey high schools has spread to middle and elementary schools. The Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants, New York Jets and New England Patriots promote the campaign with booths in their stadiums.

"We never expected this," William Elliott said Sunday. "We just put one step in front of the other in the hopes of saving lives."

State officials noticed the Elliotts' effort.

"Alcohol-related crashes cause about 200 deaths per year, accounting for about 32 percent of all traffic fatalities," state Division of Highway Traffic Safety spokesman Zach Hosseini said. "That's why we're happy to see support for the HERO Campaign coming from young people. We want students to feel comfortable in choosing a sober designated driver before partying."

Indeed, students from schools throughout South Jersey were a significant part of Sunday's crowd on the Ocean City High School football field for the hoopla that preceded the 5K from Sixth Street to 20th Street and back.

That included members of the Oakcrest High School girls' volleyball team, who came with other students from the school.

"They are more aware of it," Barbara Dell'aringo, the team's coach, said of students and designated drivers.

Dell'aringo advises the school's SADD, or Students Against Drunken Driving, program. She acknowledged that, even with all the publicity about using a designated driver, it can be a hard choice for students.

"We have to get the word out," she said.

Still people came simply to support the effort. That included Lynn Bock, of Winslow Township, Camden County, who brought along son Matthew, 11, and daughter Madelyan, 3.

"I just heard the story behind the campaign," Bock said. "It's a great thing that they're trying to do."

The important thing for William Elliott is that it stops people from being killed by drunken drivers. "We don't want the list to grow," he said.

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