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You puke, you pay

Cabdrivers have a new tool to deal with vomiters: A $50 clean-up fee

(RedEye illustration )
June 28, 2012|By Mick Swasko, RedEye

Puking penalty. Vomit violation. Upchuck charge.

Whatever they call it, cabdrivers in Chicago soon will have a new tool to deal with over-served customers who leave a mess in their vehicles. Under a measure going into effect Sunday, they can add $50 to the fare of any customer who vomits after entering. The fee is one of a handful of new rules that cover matters including flag pulls, placards and green cab initiatives.

It is not part of a police ticket or any sort or official violation that could be traced back to the driver. Instead, it will be a charge listed on the cab's placard, to be used at the driver's discretion. A refusal to pay the fee will be treated the same way as a refusal to pay a fare, and drivers will have the right to call police and report such incidents.

New placards announcing the fare and other fee changes are supposed to be installed in cabs by Sunday.

"In a lot of ways, it's empowering the driver to say there is a consequence to puking all over their cabs," said Jennifer Lipford, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Some cabdrivers and customers have welcomed the option, saying it's a way to be compensated for time spent off the road. But others see a problem with the charge, which they say shouldn't always be a flat $50 because circumstances can always vary.

"If someone were to throw up at my job, or make a huge mess, I wouldn't get paid extra for that," said Sonny Griffin, 23, of Edgewater, who works as a server downtown.

Griffin said he once needed a cabdriver to pull over as he vomited after a particularly late night. He said he tipped handsomely in that case, but he worries that a mandatory fee could come as a shock to riders. After all, its illegal for drivers to refuse a fare, even if they look like they're ready to vomit.

"I think it's definitely going to hit people by surprise," Griffin said. He said he has since re-thought the way he drinks—and when he decides to get into a cab. "If I don't think I am going to make it on the train or in a cab, I walk my butt home," he said.

Others look forward to the change. Lindsay Smith, 27, of Lakeview, said she once shared a cab with a person who vomited during a journey home, and she offered to clean up that mess herself. The $50 is deserved, she said.

"You should learn a lesson at least," she said. "Maybe it's a sign kids should stop binge drinking so much."

George Lutfallah, publisher of Chicago Dispatcher—a news outlet covering the taxi industry—said the change is welcome. When the idea was raised in September 2009, charging extra for dealing with a drunk fare's leftover mess was treated as a joke.

"For cabdrivers, it's no laughing matter when someone throws up in the cab," he said. "It's something that doesn't just go away with a simple wipe-down. It takes time and effort."

The timing is the worst of it, Lutfallah said. Friday and Saturday nights are the prime money-making hours for cabdrivers, but those times also come with the higher risks of picking up a nauseous customer. For the most part, he said, the change is applauded by those in the industry, but he said some likely think the dollar amount is too low to make up for lost time and customers.

"Are there going to be problems? Of course there will be some points of contention," Lutfallah said. "But at least the driver has something in their back pocket now that protects them that they simply did not have before."

Lutfallah also said that just because a driver can charge the extra fee, it doesn't mean they always will. If an ill passenger on the way to the hospital throws up, or a pregnant patron becomes sick, he said, a driver might be sympathetic.

"If they have an accident in the cab, I'm not going to be happy about it, but it might be a situation that's a little more forgivable," he said. "Maybe I'll let that go."

Lipford said the fee was a big demand from drivers as changes were prepped to the city's ordinances.

"It's probably going to stop a lot of fights and angry drivers," she said.

CABBIE CASE STUDY

You're late to the game, Chicago.

For about five years, cabs in Savannah, Ga., have been charging their messy fares $75 for taking a cab out of commission.

Larry Green, owner of Savannah's largest cab company, Yellow Cab, said the idea came after droves of people descended on the city for one of the largestSt. Patrick's Dayparades in the country. With about 80 cabs in his fleet to serve the nearly 1 million people who turned out for the event, having a car out of commission was bad for business. But Green said though it compensates the drivers for their time, it hasn't prevented people from overindulgence.

"They still do it. I think most people aren't aware of what it costs when that happens," he said.

As for Chicago, Green says he thinks people will pony up after puking.

"Yeah, it'll work, absolutely. Somebody gets sick in your car, they realize they messed up your car, you know, they're willing to pay," he said.

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