App-based ridesharing a possible DUI game-changer

June 6, 2014 

The City of Tacoma and the state Legislature are to be commended for their willingness to wrestle with a host of thorny tax, labor and public safety issues to help rideshare services like Lyft and Uber share the road with traditional taxis.

This service – which connects car owners to passengers in order to get from Point A to Point B – is quicker, easier and cheaper than taxis. This is, in part, because the start-up services use mobile device applications that pair ride-seekers on the spot with privately driven vehicles headed their direction.

But app-based ride services have value beyond expanding transportation options in Pierce County. Making them available to impaired drives could be game-changing in preventing needless deaths and injuries on our roadways.

Along with effective law enforcement and education, sober rides for drinkers help assure that our loved ones will return home safe at the end of the day.

Arranging for a taxi before leaving for a night out on the town for decades has been widely promoted as a way to avoid a DUI and spare lives.

In this spirit, and for the past four years, the 21-member Tacoma Pierce County DUI and Traffic Safety Task Force has regularly passed out scan cards in bars so patrons and bartenders alike can easily connect via smart phones with local taxi dispatchers.

Although the cards are increasingly and enthusiastically used by some, the taxis themselves, say drinkers, are far and few between, sometimes involve long waits and are expensive, especially to non-city dwellers.

Here in Pierce County, designated drivers have become notably more in evidence since the task force began a full-time dedicated Target Zero Team. Comprised of troopers, deputies and local officers, the team has been on the road 24/7 arresting impaired drivers; this has reduced the number of impaired driving fatalities by more than 42 percent over the past four years.

While this is truly something to write home about, sober designated drivers are in lesser supply. A study last year gave new definition to the term “designated driver” when it concluded that 40 percent of designated drivers have had something to drink before driving.

The Tacoma Pierce County DUI and Traffic Safety Task Force believes we can dramatically reduce the odds of impaired driving if there are:

 • Plentiful fully insured, licensed taxi and rideshare drivers who drive regularly inspected cars with signage, pass Department of Licensing and law enforcement criminal background checks and receive driver’s training.

 • Centralized taxi dispatch services which increase response time, operate during prime DUI-nighttime hours and ensure that drinkers who live outside Tacoma can get home.

 • Taxi stands near all major nightclub and bar zones so those who choose to ride home in a taxi can get a cab easily; and

 • Taxi and rideshare company driver incentives to ensure the availability of nighttime drivers who charge group, flat-rate or other affordable fees.

Our hope is that the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which is charged with making recommendations for regulating the rideshare industry, will encourage the new business model while vigorously protecting driver and passenger safety. Revamping some of the old rules that force rideshare start-ups to operate on the fringes of legitimacy is likely to benefit us all, not to mention the economy.

We also hope the committee will recognize its potentially larger role in advancing life-saving public policy in our tech-savvy age. It costs all of us $1.4 million in medical and other costs when someone loses his or her life on our roads to an impaired driver.

Critically injured survivors cost an average of $1.1 million. And those who have lost their loved ones to an impaired driver say this doesn’t even begin to cover it.

John Cheesman is chief of the Fircrest Police Department. He also chairs the Tacoma Pierce County DUI and Traffic Safety Task Force.

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