For 15 years, the Pepin Distributing Company and United Cab Company have worked together to operate Alert Cab, which provides free rides to people in Hillsborough County who are too drunk to drive.
During April, however, United stopped sending taxis to the University Area Hangout (UA), claiming that guests as well as bartenders and servers were abusing the service. United has since resumed service to UA, but friction over United’s reliability, and the role of Alert Cab in general, persists.
Nancy Castellano, owner and operator of United, said that although keeping drunk drivers off the road is the program’s goal, people at UA were abusing the free rides, using them as their main form of transportation.
“When we find out someone drives a group of people out to a bar, drops them off and they intend to use Alert Cab to get home, we consider that abuse,” she said. “The abuse was brought to our attention, and we enforced the rules.”
Patrons must approach bartenders or servers to request an Alert Cab. After the call has been made, the individual’s keys and license are handed over to the cab driver to make sure they arrive home safely.
Paul Riebenack, owner of UA, believed that United acted too hastily, basing its decision on poor information.
After the service was suspended, Riebenack said he tried contacting United several times but received no response. When a bartender at UA called for an Alert Cab one evening and was told no one would come, Riebenack knew something had to be done.
“Whether or not they know it’s there and they’re doing it responsibly or not, it works,” he said. “It accomplishes its goal of getting people who are drinking and driving off the street.”
Riebenack later contacted Pepin, Alert Cab’s primary sponsor and Anheuser-Busch’s local distributor.
Bill Gieseking, director of marketing for Pepin, has overseen the Alert Cab program since its inception in Hillsborough County. Although Pepin pays the majority of the cost for Alert Cab, Gieseking said he was primarily concerned with the safety of the community.
“Alert Cab was designed for the use of servers and bar owners to prevent the incidents of drunk driving,” Gieseking said. “I think United Cab jumped the gun a little bit, assuming the program was being abused. I made the determination that there wasn’t abuse.”
While March was an unusually busy month for Alert Cab, Gieseking said the combination of increased demand for rides and rising fuel prices have placed United in a precarious situation.
Across the county, Gieseking estimated that at least 30 to 40 Alert Cabs are called for per month. Castellano said United operates the program and covers one third of the cost while Pepin funds the remainder.
“At the end of the day, as long as we can afford to keep this program open, we’re going to do that,” she said.
At the direction of Pepin and Gieseking, United has reinstated the Alert Cab service to UA, but Skye Anderson, bartender and co-general manager, is reluctant to call United.
“They refused to perform a service they were being paid for,” Anderson said. “All of a sudden they just said, ‘no more.'”
Since the suspension of service, Anderson prefers to call Yellow Cab Company, another taxi service Pepin has contracted to participate in Alert Cab.
While the dispute over how Alert Cabs are being used continues, UA’s management, United and Pepin all agreed with the program’s primary goal of keeping drunk drivers off the road.
“Abuse of the program isn’t acceptable,” Gieseking said. “At the same time, I’ve got my mission to make our community a safer place.”