What about your car?

Partiers who take taxis often get their cars towed. Here's an idea that might help.

Published May 13, 2007

TAMPA - So you've had a few pints at your favorite watering hole and you're feeling 0.06, but your last remaining senses tell you that you're probably closer to 0.10 on the Breathalyzer scale.

You know 0.08 is presumed impairment, and you want to do the right thing by calling a taxi. Problem is, if you leave your car outside the bar, it might get towed overnight, leaving you with hefty retrieval fee.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White wants to help.

This week, White will ask his fellow commissioners' blessing to look into ways to grant a form of tow truck amnesty for people who call a cab when they've had too many.

"I just don't want to penalize people who are trying to be responsible, " White said.

He envisions a system in which bartenders or cabbies issue a decal or placard that can be placed on the dash of an abandoned car whose owner is tipsy and calls a cab. They'd have 12 or 16 hours after to retrieve it.

After that, fair game.

Attorneys for the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County, cab and tow truck regulators, and cab and tow truck operators, see some challenges with trying to make it work.

They're not sure how you create a system that lets tow truck drivers know who not to tow that can't be abused or is fail-safe. More importantly, they are not sure they can tell private property owners they can't remove unwanted cars from their lots.

"It's an admirable concept, " said Tampa City Attorney David Smith. "But how do you tell a private property owner to, in essence, store a car on their property for 12 hours? In essence, that's what you're doing."

County Attorney Renee Lee said her staff will research ways to achieve White's objective, provided his fellow commissioners support his proposal.

Regular bar patrons who linger after closing have probably witnessed the phenomenon in party districts such as Ybor City. Around 3 a.m., tow truck drivers literally line up to take their pick of cars whose owners have failed to retrieve them, for whatever reason.

Puzzled owners return the next morning to find the car missing and a bill often topping $100 awaiting them when they track down the tow yard.

The major cab companies in town, United Cab Co. and Yellow Cab Co., both have free or reduced cab prices for inebriated bar patrons who relinquish their keys and agree to go home, as opposed hitching a ride to another bar. The free program, Alert Cab, is underwritten by beer distributors.

But they don't solve the abandoned car problem, and White fears that some people may forgo a cab out of fear of having their car hauled off.

The Public Transportation Commission regulates tow trucks hired by government to haul abandoned or derelict vehicles from public streets, but not those hired by property owners to protect their property and remove unwanted vehicles.

Transportation Commission executive director Greg Cox said he's not sure how to enact a grace period for vehicles abandoned by potential drunken drivers.

"It's certainly a great idea for those people who are being responsible and have decided not to drive, " Cox said. "The mechanics would be a little tricky to put in place."

In some cases, bars are located in buildings they don't own, with parking lots shared with other nearby businesses. Sometimes even in those cases, property owners will have abandoned vehicles towed to prevent people from lingering after hours and potentially causing troubles.

"I would think after the first night of towing, they the bar owners would have said, 'Hey, man, these folks did the right thing, ' " said Linda Unfried, co-founder of the Hillsborough County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It should be something where they just get together and talk about it and they could come up with a solution."

Any "solution" is sure to get close scrutiny from tow truck companies, who could regard it as a threat to a lucrative business.

Jim Stepp of Stepp's Towing Service said White has talked to him about a range of proposals, and he has some reservations.

In his estimation, people who drive to bars then choose to drink too much alcohol have already failed to exercise responsibility.

"I believe in getting them off the road, but not at my expense, " he said.

Louis Minardi, president of Yellow Cab in Hillsborough, said he's not sure how much business he loses because people fear getting towed. He said White's idea sounds good, but he wants to hear how it would work.

In addition to free cab rides for drivers underwritten by beer distributors, Yellow Cab offers discounted fares to people who have had too many drinks but didn't drive themselves to the place where they drank. His contract cabbies take the passengers in hope that they will get the call when the person seeks to retrieve their vehicle the next day.

"In our case, we're just glad when they remember where they left their car, " Minardi said. "You wouldn't believe how many times we get that."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.