WRAP SoberRide FAIL

taxi
Taxi by flickr user cupcakepanda

New Year’s Eve, my friends and I headed to a house party on Capitol Hill. Since we were all going to be enjoying our fair share of champagne, we decided to rely on taxis as our main transportation. Taxis were the best option, especially since the house we were going to was not accessible by Metro (not to mention ridiculous gusting winds and freezing temps). We were able to miraculously snag a Red Top Cab on our way to our house party, and decided to call Washington Regional Alcohol Program’s SoberRide to catch a safe (and free!) ride home.

For those of you unfamiliar with SoberRide, the program is aimed to reduce drunk driving in the DC area. SoberRide provides free taxi rides (up to a $50 fare) to people 21 and over. This is a truly fantastic idea. Plus, from what I understand, they have the ability to act as a switchboard, and can direct you to a taxi company with availability.

So we followed SoberRide’s rules. We called only from phones with local area codes, and after hitting redial on repeat (radio-contest/ticketmaster style), we were finally put on hold for 10 minutes. Had we been at a bar, this would have been pretty hard to sit through, with chaos going on around you. In a bar it would also be hard to hear when it finally clicked over to an operator, but luckily we were in a house and had the option of going into a quiet room to hear. So we were able to talk to an operator, schedule two taxis, and were told our wait was 20-30 minutes and that the taxi would call when it arrived. An hour and a half later, we hadn’t heard a peep, and the SoberRide line was so jammed we were getting operator messages telling us the number didn’t exist (even though it was the exact same number we had used to get through, we promise). We hit the redial key for another half hour, never getting through.

So we called bunches of other taxi companies (literally, twenty) and got on wait lists for a few cab companies, none of them pulled through. Around 3 a.m., after the Metro wasn’t even running any longer, we finally decided to borrow a friend’s car and drive our now-sober selves home. SoberRide, you failed.

The key to creating a successful program is to have taxis that show up, and not to leave drunk people stranded. Now, I realize this is a free service, so I was happy to give them more time than the quoted 20-30 minutes. And it’s not their fault that the phone line was so jammed that we couldn’t check back in. But a program aimed to keep drunk drivers off the street needs to think like a drunk person – when you’re ready to go, you’re ready to go. You’re trying to be responsible, so you call a taxi. You’re quoted a wait time, you expect the taxi to show.

A taxi actually showing up where it has been called is the EXACT pinnacle of success for SoberRide! Otherwise, you’re leaving people to their own means – whatever that could be. They themselves agree, saying on their Web site: “[SoberRide has been] called one of the nation’s most successful free cab ride programs for would-be impaired drivers, has helped to ensure greater Washington, DC residents have a safe way home on high-risk holidays.” So I expect them to have the capacity to handle a high-volume of calls, especially on key holidays. It is important, especially on the busiest drinking nights in the city (that’s the point, right?), that the service be smooth and work efficiently, that’s why it exists!

So I ask you, reader – did you have success with SoberRide? Have you been able to get home safe and sound using the service? Or were you as frustrated as we were, left stranded to figure out an alternative way home?

** UPDATE (1/2) **: WRAP President Kurt Erikson gave me a call to let me know he’s investigating my NYE situation and called our experience “an exception” to the norm. I’m hoping that’s the case, as this is (as I said before) a great program for our area. That said, speak up readers – did you have the same experience as commenter Meghan (see below) or have you always gotten your SoberRide?

** UPDATE: (1/5) ** – Super helpful and friendly Taxi Transportation Services employee Chandra Williams called me this morning and updated me on what went wrong during our call. After looking over the information, she found that there were (surprise!) no cabs in the area. She said protocol would be for the dispatcher to call us back and let us know that, so we could find another way home. Chandra was gracious enough to explain the entire taxi process for me, which you all might find interesting. Here’s the low-down: you call SoberRide, and the operator takes the information. The information is given to another operator, who orders the cab. The cab dispatcher works on the call, and will broadcast the information about the job to drivers. The dispatcher will call out sections of the city (we were in South Lincoln Park, apparently), and then drivers have to respond saying they’re in the area and ready take the call. She said on busy nights, there aren’t enough drivers to take the calls, which is 100% not shocking to me despite what some may think… Where Chandra said they dropped the ball was on the follow-through, letting us know that they weren’t able to secure a taxi for us, so we could find another means of transportation home. So, although this DOESN’T make SoberRide WIN since they still failed to achieve their mission, providing safe rides home to those of us out on NYE, it was interesting to hear how the service works from start to finish. Where SoberRide does win, is on customer complaint response, where I can say they’ve been totally helpful and responsive. And enlightening to all my dear readers.

** UPDATE: (1/8) ** – WRAP President Kurt Erikson wrote an open letter, which I posted in the Daily Feed.

Katie moved to DC in 2007, and has since embarked upon a love affair with the city. She’s an education reform advocate and communications professional during the day; at night and on the weekends, she’s an owner here at We Love DC. Katie has high goals to eat herself through the entire city, with only her running shoes to save her from herself. For up-to-the-minute news and reviews (among other musings), follow her on Twitter!

36 thoughts on “WRAP SoberRide FAIL

  1. The program was aimed at would-be impaired drivers who did not have the money to pay for a cab ride home.

    It was not aimed at people who wanted to go out, get drunk, and then see if they could get a free ride home, even though they had the money to pay for one.

  2. Hmm, I see the goal of the program to be exactly what they state it on the Web site to be: to ensure greater Washington, DC residents have a safe way home on high-risk holidays.

    Am I a greater DC resident? Check
    Do I need a safe ride home? Check
    Was it a high-risk holiday? Check

  3. And actually, now that I think about it, the fact that I had the money to pay isn’t relevant to where SoberRide failed – in fact, your point about money makes it even more of a fail – not showing up creates an even larger barrier for those without money than for those WITH money.

  4. The reason that it was so difficult to get a cab that night was because so many people who could afford to pay for a cab wanted to take advantage of the program and get a free ride simply because they were made available.

    Again, the idea of the program is to get impaired drivers off the road, not provide free cab rides for any drunk who wanted one.

  5. Katie:

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience with SoberRide. As President of the nonprofit organization coordinating this free cab ride service to prevent drunk driving (Washington Regional Alcohol Program, http://www.wrap.org) — and a service which succeeded in at least transporting safely home nearly 500 would-be drunk drivers this past Wednesday evening — I’d like to look into why your call failed and, to the extent that I can, rectify both your situation as well as this program which over 43,000 Greater Washington residents have taken advantage of since 1993, alone.

    To that end, could you contact me directly and via the e-mail embedded in this response and so that I may get further details (time of call, address given, etc.) so that I may further and immediately investigate this matter?

    - Kurt Erickson, President
    Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP)

  6. I had this exact experience with Sober Ride this past Halloween. I called Sober Ride around 1:00am. I was not quoted time but assumed a 30 minute wait. After an hour of no cabs, I called and was able to get through to the switchboard and ask about my cab status. They could not tell me anything – only renew my status in the queue. After another hour and a half of waiting, I called to cancel a ride and hailed a cab for my party.

    Two and a half hours, and no cab. My party and I could have walked home faster.

    When I called to cancel the cab, I was told that cabs pick up people when they are in proximity of the request. Cabs are not sent to addresses. You will be picked up when a cab happens to be in that area. Needless to say that bit of news left me miffed.

  7. I had a similar experience over NYE as well. A friend and I were at a house party that was not metro accessible and neither of us own cars which meant taxis were the only way to go. Not only was I unable to get hold of Sober Ride but after we gave up on getting through it took 20+ minutes on a major road before we finally found an empty taxi. Of course by this time the buses weren’t running which would have helped a lot.

    I read recently that DC is thinking of increasing the number of taxi licenses permitted which I think would be a big part of the solution. As more and more people go car-less, I would love to see DC allow more taxis on holidays and weekends.

  8. This is indeed shocking news.

    Somebody offers a limited resource for free, and there is not enough of the resource for everybody who wants it.

    We should DEMAND that someone SUPPLY some sort of THEORY of why this is so.

  9. The SoberRide program seems to be unpopular with cab drivers – even after being dispatched by SoberRide’s switchboard several cab drivers have refused to provide the free service. In addition…wait times are very long so the way around this has been to call ahead of time.

  10. I had the whole cab not showing up problem last year. Much as I didn’t enjoy it, I stayed sober this year since metro closed early and I didn’t have money enough for a cab back to VA. I knew I couldn’t rely on SoberRide for a worry free night.

  11. Why is anyone surprised that it was difficult to get a cab on New Years Eve?! I don’t care if you’re talking about SoberRide, the cab stand down the street, or waving your arms on the side of a major thoroughfare, nights like that always present logistical problems of this sort. You have too many amateurs going out and overindulging, with too few cabbies interested in working on a night when they’re reasonably likely to get stuck cleaning up some drunkard’s vomit, dodging drunk drivers too stupid to stay off the road, or getting stuck in traffic due to any number of problems (checkpoints, accidents, pedestrians trying to flag down the few cabs that are out). A smart partier would have invited people to their own place, recruited a designated driver, planned to crash at a friend’s, or stayed close to home. You can’t tell me that at least one of those options wasn’t realistic. I’m sorry SoberRide didn’t come through, but relying on a single means of getting home was just piss-poor planning on your part.

  12. We also tried calling, repeatedly, at around 2:15 am, to no avail. We never even got onto hold.

  13. I, also, had the EXACT same experience on Halloween. Calling from the Capitol Hill area, quoted 20-30 minutes, waited about an hour and a half. We were able to get through on the line, and were told that a cab would be there eventually, and that the problem was that there were no cabs in the area. Essentially, the root of the problem seemed to be not many people needing to be dropped off in Cap. Hill area, therefore no cabs going to the area. It’s too bad that something like this, which should be a great program, is such an enormous frustration!

  14. Perhaps we should add to Nelson Algren’s three rules of life:

    – Never play cards with a man called Doc.

    – Never eat at a place called Mom’s.

    – Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.

    – Never go out drinking if you can’t afford the cab ride home.

  15. Katie, could we get an update about what Kurt Erickson said? For the record, a friend of mine had the exact same experience on Halloween as one of the other commenters. She was an unpaid intern at a party outside of safe walking distance from a Metro stop at 1 in the morning, btw.

  16. Hey, I’m the friend Nora mentioned (never got my cab on Halloween). I was disappointed with the service, mostly because by the time I gave up on the cab after several hours of waiting, the buses and Metro were no longer running and I was stuck. I was lucky in that I was somewhere I could stay the night, but it was still annoying to be told a cab was coming and then have it not show. I really hope nobody decided to drive home because their cab didn’t come.

  17. @Will – A lot of those options you suggested we considered and decided against. Next time we’ll obviously plan better, but I’d argue it’s not a “rookie” mistake to expect SoberRide to fail. Plus, this isn’t a post about a shortage of cabs on NYE, or mis-planning. It is a post about the failure of a service that, to be considered successful in meeting their mission, must pick people up, and what happens when they don’t. I’ll probably pull an @Billy next year. @Nora – Kurt said it might be Monday before he’s able to figure out what happened with my ride. When he does let me know, I promise I’ll update the post to let you know what he says. From the comments, it sounds like it’s actually a bigger problem than just NYE, or just our experience. @Cait – you make a great point – by the time we (and you, apparently) give up on the cab, public transportation was closed. It’s a rock and a hard place!

  18. @KatieT: I probably came across more harshly than intended in my comment, but I guess what I was trying to say (albeit with more tact) was that relying on any plans that allow for a single point of failure (WRAP SoberRide, for example) is silly. It sucks that they were unable to live up to their mission and provide you with a ride home, but I wouldn’t have waited an hour and a half to determine that was how things were going down. Once they said 20-30 minutes, I would have started planning my next move just in case. I’m sorry you got stuck between a rock and a hard place, but I’m glad you finally got home safely (which is ultimately the most important thing).

  19. It’s hard to get too worked up by this “FAIL,” I have several friends who had the same game plan – get wasted and take advantage of a free cab ride home. No sympathy.

    Seriously, are there anywhere near enough cabs in the area to cater to everyone who wants something for nothing? Not even close. Additionally, who’s footing the bill for the public’s alcohol binging? For sure, someone is shelling money for gas, drivers, cab time, etc. Just so folks with means (who decide to save a couple bucks) can milk the system?

    I feel bad for the people who were actually willing to be responsible for their alcohol intake and PAY for a ride, and then got caught up in everyone else’s “frugality.”

  20. Katie,just a friendly comment on your posting as to how SOBER RIDE FAILED YOU.You were quoted a ETA of 20-30 minutes and you waited why didnt you leave as a RESPONSIBLE ADULT?????????? It’s odd to me that you had MONEY in your pocket to pay for the services but yet in still you still sipped champagne and waited 1 hour longer how RESPONSIBLE OF YOU!!!!!!!!!! I really think it’s unfair that because you didnt get a FREE RIDE HOME you’re trying to sabotage WRAP/CAB COMPANIES for you IRRESPONSIBILITIES.Thats the BIG picture here.Now you have all these innocent people involved in the MESS that you created for yourself.My New Year’s Resolution to you is STOP DRINKING.All this nonsense because you didnt get a free cab ride home.PETIFUL

  21. KATIE T,WOW WHAT AN EXPERIENCE,BUT I DONT KNOW WHY YOU TOOK THE TIME OUT OF YOUR BUSY LIFE TO POST SUCH A BLOG.I WOULD HAVE LEFT, YOU KNOW YOU CANT RELY ON A FREE TAXI RIDE THE WAY THE ECONOMY IS STRUCTURED.IM A INDEPENDENT CAB DRIVER AND BECAUSE I OWN MY OWN CAB I DIDNT COME OUT AT ALL THA NIGHT.ALL THAT BLAME FOR WHAT AND WHAT ELSE ARE THEY GOING TO OFFER YOU?? THE PEOPLE THAT WORK FOR THEM COMPANIES HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH WHERE AND HOW THE CABS PICK UP PEOPLE AND IN WHAT TIME FRAME,ONCE AGAIN A TAXI CAB IS NOT A LIMOUSINE SERVICE AND DOESNT HAVE TO PICK UP A SOLE IF THEY DONT WANT TO BY LAW,SO YOU SO HAVE CALLED A LIMOUSINE COMPANY.GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR COMPLAINT!!!!!!!!!

  22. @Tom B,Im a cabbie that knows the industry has been driving a cab for the last 40 years and know lawfully the rights of cab drivers.Now for you to come here and comment on a situation that has nothing to do with you is pointless.As I stated before cab drivers by law dont have to pick up noboby if they dont want so to you TOM mind your business,Im starting to think you’re mental for meddling in other peoples problems.This is KATIE’s blog NOT TOM BRIDGES……..

  23. KMT comment FAIL.

    Or maybe I should say, “KMT COMMENT FAYL. THEM COMPANEES HAZ MENTLE PAYSHENT ON TEH LOOS.”

    A. You can’t spell.
    B. CAPS LOCK IS LAME.
    C. Tom has as much of a right to comment as you.

    I recommend going back on the meds and staying out from behind the wheel of a cab. You’re only reinforcing everyone’s impression that most of you are ignorant, arrogant a-holes.

  24. You were in South Lincoln Park, on Capitol Hill? There are TWO Metro stations within walking distance. It takes 10 minutes to walk to Eastern Market and about 12 to get to Potomac. It’s not exactly close but hardly “not accessible” by Metro.

  25. Most of you are completely missing the point of Katie’s article. It is not about the fact that she did not get a free ride. It is about why this program that claims to have a high success rate failed for her and it sounds like others as well that night.

    They failed because they told Katie that they would provide her with a taxi and that it would arrive within a stated time. If the program had told her they were too flooded with requests and could not offer her a ride, that would be one thing. But they told her they could pick her up.

    Now luckily Katie was able to find other means of transportation to get home that night. But what Katie is really questioning is the program in general. Yes she found a responsible way home that night, but if it failed for her who else did it fail for? And what if it failed for someone who did not make as responsible of decisions in the end? The program claims to have a high success rate but where is that really evident?

    Some people have poked fun of Katie for actually believing she could get a free taxi from SoberRides to begin with. But if SoberRides is as successful as they claim to be, why are people laughing at the fact that someone would count on it to work?

  26. If I might jump in with my own story….a few years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, I also tried to take advantage of the SoberRide program. (Yes, I admit I was just trying to milk the system and get a free taxi ride, but that’s besides the point.) I called, they gave an ETA of 20-30 minutes, and I waited for an hour and a half and never heard anything from them. I was on Capitol Hill, so I decided to venture out and see if I could find a taxi on my own. I was able to flag one down in about 2 minutes.

  27. Um, ian, even I – a diehard ex-Chicagoan – wouldn’t dare walk 10-15 minutes in the sub-freezing temps and high winds we had that night. Especially if inebriated. So I’d say yeah, Metro was not accessible for that particular evening.

  28. Pingback: We Love DC » Blog Archive » SoberRide Update

  29. I’m not getting all this mock outrage over a person who can afford a cab ride trying to get a free one. Um, you guys? Who do you think is out partying on New Years’ Eve? If they can’t scrape together 10 bucks for a cab ride, their consumption is probably limited also.

  30. Exactly, Tiffany. Who do the complainers think this program is aimed at? The homeless? The obvious goal is to provide an alternate option for those who might consider trying to drive home just to save a few bucks. People (rich, poor, or otherwise) are not going to go out, get hammered, and then suddenly think “I wonder if there’s a free cab ride program going on tonight?”. Anyone using this option is planning ahead and being responsible – this is what the program is for. If you’re out getting 3 or 4 drinks at a bar on NYE, you can afford a cab ride.