Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Drivers Incorporated makes a business of designated driving in D.C.

May 30, 2012 - 10:53 AM
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(Photo: flickr/davidsledge)

One third of traffic fatalities involve alcohol, the CDC estimates — close to 11,000 people in 2009 alone. In response to these dangers, our culture has stigmatized driving drunk. If you've been drinking, perhaps you should take a taxicab or the Metro or the bus, perhaps you should designate a sober friend to drive. Or perhaps consider a company that has quietly emerged over the last five years. The company's name is Drivers, Incorporated, and it takes an interesting approach to the drunk driving problem. They don't provide cars to drive drunk people home ... but they do promise to provide sober drivers who will, when summoned, appear as if by magic and drive the intoxicated customer home in the customer's own vehicle. The company tagline: "Driving you and your car home."

This transportation service rarely makes much of a splash in headlines or online but appears to be functioning well enough throughout the last few years. I recently overheard the company's staff members fielding at least a half dozen candidates for new drivers by phone at a D.C. coffee shop, so they're hiring at least. The drivers of Drivers, Incorporated are licensed and insured, according to the McLean, Virginia-based company, and are required to be comfortable driving just about any vehicle they need to and to get along easily with drunk clientele. They must wear dark, professional jackets. These drivers are paid an hourly wage plus tips and must pass a background check from the Cromwell Group.

"We want to work with any place in the Washington Metro that sells alcohol," the company declares on its website. It touts partnerships with around 100 bars and restaurants throughout the D.C. metro region and says it reaches customers through posters, cards, and other forms of outreach.

View Drivers Base Service Area in a larger map

And how do customers seem to be reacting? Online reviewers seem open to the idea of the company. One customer happily reports a ride home on the company's Facebook page and says the trip cost (fairly, in his estimate) about $45, including tip. "I don't have to worry," the man wrote, "about taking a cab in the morning, a ticket on my car, or any of that BS you get when you leave your car overnight! Awesome." One review complains of a form of surge pricing used in years past in high-demand holiday times ($50 extra on one New Year's Eve).. The standard base price is $20 plus $3 a mile (5 miles: $35, 10 miles: $50, 20 miles: $80).

"D.C. is a drinking town. D.C. is a driving town. I work to disconnect those two things," Aries Indenbaum, a Drivers, Incorporated saleswoman, explains in a long Tumblr post from earlier this year about how the company works and the labor involved in spreading the word of the service. They enter bars and restaurants to promote what they offer. "I chat with the bartender, the hosts or whoever stands around. We need the permission of the managers, but we desperately require the buy-in of the staff. The staff are our mouths, they are our radio speakers, our boomboxes. I hand out my business cards, neat in their holders, and maybe my informational packet. If I speak to the manager, and they get excited, I give out complimentary rides, and I am the widest of cheese-smiles. I tell them the facts, the details, and the reasoning. And there is nodding and considering, and after a moment, I am scheduling a time to put my signs up."

The model is simple enough and generally seems to run on few people. The prime hours tend to be 10 p.m. till 3 a.m. on any given day. On Jan. 1, 2011, Drivers Incorporated notes there were 15 drivers out on the streets the previous evening, a modest but not insignificant number. The company also employs interceptors, who transport the sober drivers where they need to be. "They must be able to navigate effectively, communicate efficiently with drivers and dispatch, and support drivers in assisting our customers," the company explains. "The ability to read maps quickly and a good sense of direction are necessary. Interceptors keep track of where drivers are and help dispatch figure out where our next available driver will be."

What the service truly reveals is another gap in our transportation infrastructure based on the culture that dominates the District. Drivers Incorporated primarily is useful for people who own cars and feel compelled to take those vehicles out before drinking, perhaps of necessity at times to reach a given destination or perhaps without thought. Not all drinking is planned, after all. The ability to return your vehicle to its home (and more critically, a spot to park where it's not liable to receive expensive tickets, as D.C. is keen to issue) is a valuable perk. A taxicab is a good way for drunk people to get home but not their personal vehicles. The company compares itself to designated-driver services in South Korea and Europe. It's not a bad idea, and I do see the market for these roving, courteous drivers. The service's rise also speaks to the criticism lodged against our D.C. taxicab industry in recent years. Drivers Incorporated points to its respect of customers' privacy and notes "taxi companies don't train their drivers to respect privacy."

Keep Drivers, Incorporated in mind if you need to get around some night next weekend. The concept is interesting, at least, and represents another tactic in the broader business of keeping drunk drivers off the road.

Update, June 1, 10:05 a.m.: Drivers Incorporated has provided some additional information about the service (and clarifies that the name requires that Incorporated be spelled out, lest you confuse them with Drivers, Inc. — I've corrected the couple instances where I abbreviated the name above). Aries Indenbaum tells me that the company avoids using their interceptors when they can and tends to use fold-up bikes and the Metro to get around the city. "Our office storage space is filled with bicycles, and one of our drivers is also a pedicab driver," she writes. Awesome.

The company has 20 employees overall and anywhere from four to 16 drivers working on any given night. They also provide a chauffeur service when not acting as designated drivers.

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