ST. LOUIS • When a drunken patron was helped out of the Lumière Place casino earlier this year, a taxicab driver at first refused to transport the man and his friends for fear the inebriated passenger would get sick in the cab.
A friend convinced the driver that her friend would be fine for the late-night, $22 cab ride to midtown. She was wrong.
The taxi driver was left with a mess in his cab — and a dispute over the cost of the ride and the cleanup triggered an investigation by the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission.
The regulatory agency eventually sided with the taxi driver, but the incident highlights the messy risk drivers take when picking up drunken passengers. Such messes have the taxicab commission considering whether to join other cities that enforce taxicab cleanup fees when drunken passengers vomit or leave other bodily fluids behind.
Area cabbies know that part of the weekend scene is the occasional phone call from someone who has had too much to drink at a bar. A few of the cabbies have complained that it can take hours to clean and disinfect a cab after someone has vomited — hours that the cabs aren’t carrying customers and generating income. Some drivers have resorted to carrying the equivalent of an air-sickness bag in their cabs.
Earlier this year, the commission learned that drivers were posting handmade signs in their taxicabs warning passengers that they would be charged up to $150 for cleaning up vomit. Passengers took pictures of them and posted them on Twitter.
The commission said drivers couldn’t charge those fees under the current rules; but Ron Klein, executive director of the taxicab commission, confirmed Friday that the agency was looking into a “reasonable” cleanup fee to compensate drivers for lost time and an adequate cleaning.
“We’re going to have more discussion about it,” Klein said.
Chicago has charged a $50 “vomit cleanup fee” for about a year. In Austin, Texas, $100 is added to the trip fare “in the event that a taxicab passenger soils the interior of a taxicab with bodily fluids or solids.”
Taxicab commission officials acknowledge it’s a sticky issue because driving inebriated people home — thus keeping them off the roads — is a vital function served by taxicabs. The same set of regulations that keeps drivers from charging a cleanup fee also prohibits drivers from turning down a passenger simply because he or she looks tipsy.
“We promote our cabs as being the ultimate designated driver,” Klein said.
Klein used to be a sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department’s traffic division and has been on the scene of hundreds of drunken driving accidents. He said cabs played a crucial role in keeping people who have had too much to drink from getting behind the wheel.
Brandon Shelton, a driver for County Cab for the past three years, said a passenger got sick in his cab during a recent Oktoberfest. (The apologetic passenger helped clean up the mess.) But Shelton said a set vomit cleanup fee could discourage potential taxicab customers, who might choose to drive drunk instead.
Other drivers are sick of people being sick in their cabs.
Independent cabdriver Paul Grisham said it was not uncommon for someone to vomit in his cab, and he supports a regulation that would permit drivers to charge for cleaning up what passengers leave behind. He said passengers rarely offer to pay or help to clean up the mess, he said.
Those enjoying a warm summer evening on Washington Avenue on Friday agreed that a taxi cleanup fee would be fair under those circumstances.
“Absolutely. I think it’s pay to play,” said Alex Noel of St. Louis, who was sipping a beer at one of the sidewalk tables outside Flannery’s Pub. “Nobody’s forcing them to drink.”
Debi Seiffert of St. Louis said a fee shouldn’t deter someone from calling a cab if the passenger had too much to drink. She says it’s a good idea.
“You’re destroying someone’s property,” she said. “I mean, if my friend puked in my car, they’d clean it up. Trust me.”