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.