Program Description Banner


Population and Socio-Economic Factors

Pitkin County, located on Colorado's Western Slope, is about 1,000 square miles of mountainous terrain, much of it national forest. The county seat is Aspen, a year-round destination resort with major influxes of visitors in winter and summer. The population centers -- Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt (partly in Pitkin, partly in Eagle County), Redstone and Thomasville -- are connected by a system of state and secondary roads which, because of mountainous terrain, naturally follow the creeks and rivers (Figure 1). The 20 miles of State Highway (SH) 82 from Basalt to Aspen is the only four-lane road in the county. The 20 miles of SH 82 from Aspen to the continental divide is two-lane, as is SH 133 from Carbondale to Redstone. The additional 195 miles of secondary roads, 26.5 miles of Aspen city streets, 25 miles of roads in Snowmass Village and 6 miles of the Pitkin County part of Basalt, are all two-lane and rather unforgiving. State Highway 82 is the main travel route in the county.

The total year-round population of all of Pitkin County is approximately 27,400. The unincorporated part of the county has a population of about 15,000. Incorporated Aspen has a year-round population of approximately 6,000, Snowmass Village about 4,400 and the Pitkin County part of Basalt approximately 2,000. However, these figures can swell by tens of thousands during the tourist seasons, especially during the winter ski season.

Because of high real estate prices in the Aspen area, many of the working class are forced to commute 25 or more miles a day from their more affordable homes "down valley" to the resort communities of Aspen and Snowmass.

The ethnic make-up of Pitkin County is predominately Caucasian. However, there has been a recent influx of Latinos, working largely in the service industries and commuting long distances to work. The proportion of the population that Latinos represent has been estimated to be 20% or more.

Pitkin County is an area of high risk for impaired driving. Among Colorado's 63 counties, Pitkin ranks first in retail alcohol sales in drinking establishments and second in retail sales in liquor stores. There are approximately 90 liquor licenses in Aspen, 29 in unincorporated Pitkin County, 35 in Snowmass Village, and 18 in Basalt, making a high population-to-bar ratio.

Figure 1: Map of Pitkin County, Colorado, and Surrounding Area

Figure 1: Map of Pitkin County, CO

The Roaring Fork Transit Agency operates a bus service throughout Aspen and Snowmass, and down the valley as far as Glenwood Springs. This system operates as late as 2:30AM and thus provides yet another low cost alternative means of transportation for potential impaired drivers.


Overall Philosophy

Aspen's Tipsy Taxi is administered through the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office as a crime prevention program with assistance from Aspen and Snowmass Police Departments and the local restaurant association. It is one part of a three-pronged approach to DUI prevention, along with education and enforcement. Tipsy Taxi is operated within an environment described by the Sheriff's Office as "enlightened, humanistic enforcement," instituted in the 1970s by then-Sheriff Dick Kienast and continued by current Sheriff Bob Braudis and Aspen Police Chief Tom Stephenson. The fundamental philosophy is that there should be a partnership between law enforcement and the community to encourage residents and tourists to make correct choices.

Tipsy Taxi, begun in 1983, is an extension of that philosophy and espouses the credo of providing a better choice. The cornerstone upon which Tipsy Taxi is built is "simplicity." The program is intended to be so simple to use that even a person whose judgment is impaired by alcohol will make the right choice -- to take a free ride home instead of trying to drive.

Another basic tenet of Tipsy Taxi is to remove all physical and psychological barriers to its use. The ride home is completely free and confidential. Moreover, the Aspen Police Department will waive any parking tickets and tow fees incurred by a Tipsy Taxi client's car having been towed for snow removal or street cleaning.

Program operators state that because impaired driving is preventable if the drinker refrains from driving, the sole purpose of Tipsy Taxi is to keep the impaired person physically separated from his or her car. Tipsy Taxi takes no moral stance on drinking alcohol and does not try to solve an alcohol abuser's larger problems. It merely seeks to keep the intoxicated person out of his or her vehicle, thereby helping not only the potential drunk driver but also everyone else on the road who might be an unwitting victim of another's poor choice.

Tipsy Taxi is available 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. Program personnel feel that makes it easier for peace officers to arrest drunk drivers rather than succumbing to the temptation of "letting them off the hook." Officers are told that every drunk driver arrested by local officers had the opportunity to make a better choice and yet chose to ignore that offer.

Tipsy Taxi, then, is described as a kind of safety net for those "who have no other way to avoid driving drunk" (the slogan used in current public service ads -- see appendix for samples). Although the Sheriff's Office encourages those who choose to drink alcohol to do so responsibly, they recognize that some people are going to choose to drink to the point of intoxication. Even those who make provisions for alternative rides may have those plans thwarted -- a designated driver may lapse into drinking, a bus may be missed, and so forth. The Tipsy Taxi program managers assume that it is the nature of safety nets to catch more than the minimum. With the philosophy that it is better to accept some limited amount of abuse (such as using the service when other sage ways home may exist) rather than risk excluding any legitimate use, bartenders are instructed never to turn down a Tipsy Taxi request. The thinking is that the risk of denying a legitimate ride far outweighs the risk of allowing a certain amount of abuse.

In approaching the community for support, the point is made that using the roadway is an experience that all people share. Everyone, regardless of socio-economic level, is a potential victim of a drunk driver. Therefore, it follows that everyone benefits from Tipsy Taxi -- not only the potential drunk driver, but also every person who may be a victim of that drunk driver. Consequently, the community seems to embrace Tipsy Taxi. All socio-economic elements of Aspen participate -- from the very rich who donate money, to the middle class who organize benefits, to the inmates in the Pitkin County jail who donate their time to accomplish non-confidential clerical chores such as numbering and collating vouchers.

Program Operation

Tipsy Taxi's first day of operation was December 16, 1983. It has run without interruption 24 hours a day, every day of the year since then.

The director of Aspen's Tipsy Taxi is a deputy sheriff who, as part of her job description, is responsible for the administration of the program. Approximately one-half of one day each week (or 250 hours each year) is spent on Tipsy Taxi management. The program's success and longevity may be partially attributable to the fact that other government employees are also assigned tasks in the system, thus assuring continuity at virtually no extra cost. For example, the Pitkin County attorney is the program's legal counsel. An Aspen Valley Hospital emergency room doctor is the program's medical counsel. The County treasurer is responsible for taking in all Tipsy Taxi donations, and the County finance department keeps track of the Tipsy Taxi account as a separate line item in Pitkin County's budget and cuts monthly checks, per the director's request, to the taxi company to reimburse for rides provided.

The ability to provide 24-hour a day service by Tipsy Taxi is simplified by the fact that Aspen has a Public Utilities Commission (PUC)-regulated taxi company. During the first few years of Tipsy Taxi's operation there were actually two taxi companies operating in Aspen, but for the past dozen years there has been only one, making administration even easier. Tipsy Taxi is, quite simply, an open charge account with that taxi company. Because other conditions, such as diabetes, can mimic the symptoms of intoxication, only professionals trained in the identification and handling of intoxicated individuals -- peace officers and bar employees -- can access the charge account.

In 1990, the Aspen City Council instituted the first of three ordinances (see appendix) prescribing mandatory training for bar owners, managers, and bartenders in topics such as liquor laws, over-serving laws, underage drinking laws, signs and symptoms of intoxication, symptoms of diseases that can mimic intoxication, tactics for peacefully cutting off service to intoxicated people, and proper use of alternative rides, including Tipsy Taxi. Peace officers, of course, have high levels of training in dealing with intoxicated people. Tipsy Taxi vouchers can be authorized only by these trained professionals.

A Tipsy Taxi ride can be initiated in several ways. Most often a Tipsy Taxi ride is offered by a bar employee or peace officer who identifies a person as needing help. However, a ride can be requested by a bar patron from his or her bartender. A host of a private party can call the police or sheriff for a voucher for a guest who has over-indulged. In this case, the responding officer congratulates the host for caring for his or her guests and arranges the safe Tipsy Taxi ride home.

In any scenario, once an individual has been identified as a Tipsy Taxi client, the bartender or peace officer responsible for arranging for the Tipsy Taxi ride follows a few simple but extremely important guidelines. They are outlined in the Tipsy Taxi manual (see appendix) and are designed to create a safe atmosphere for the rider and to minimize liability to the Sheriff's Office and the director.

In terms of liability, because Tipsy Taxi is a crime prevention program and is operated under the authority of the Sheriff's Office, the sheriff and deputy sheriff director are governed by the same rules of law as for the execution of any activity in the line of duty. The director makes every effort to run the program responsibly and to educate bartenders and taxi drivers on proper use. (See appendix for medical and underage drinking guidelines). However, civil law does not preclude personal lawsuits. The sheriff and deputy sheriff accept that risk because they believe the potential good outweighs the personal risk. To date, Aspen's Tipsy Taxi has enjoyed a perfect safety record.

The most fundamental rule of Tipsy Taxi is that the bar employee or officer who has identified a person as a Tipsy Taxi candidate (and therefore is in need of assistance) is responsible for that person's well being until he or she physically hands the person over (with the voucher) to the taxi driver. The responsible officer or bartender calls the local taxi company and requests that a cab come to his or her location. Then, he/she fills out a voucher, which activates the open charge account. The responding taxi driver then is responsible for the person until he/she is dropped off at the front door of his/her residence.

Tipsy Taxi vouchers are four-part forms. The top copy stays with the bar as a record of those who have been provided rides. The middle two copies initially are kept by the taxi driver and subsequently used for payment records: one copy stays with the taxi company for their permanent records while the other is processed by the taxi company and is included, as proof of service, with the monthly statement to the Tipsy Taxi director who authorizes payment of the bills. The last copy is given to the Tipsy Taxi client. Attached to his/her copy are three documents: a reminder that the ride is a gift from the community and not supported by tax dollars; a self-addressed envelope in case he/she wants to make a donation; a notice that if his/her car had been towed for street cleaning or snow plowing that he/she can get the parking ticket and towing fees waived by presenting the Tipsy Taxi voucher to the Police Department the next day.

The information required on the Tipsy Taxi voucher is minimal but necessary for responsible operation of the program. The bartender or peace officer offering the ride must fill out basic information such as the date and time, the name of drinking establishment (or location of the ride origination which may be a private party), the authorizing person's name and signature, the full name of the rider and the exact destination. The taxi driver fills out the number of miles and the amount of the taxi fare that will be charged to the program.

Tipsy Taxi rides are not constrained by geographical limits. However, for legal reasons, there must be a monetary limit, which is now $75, increased from $25 to $35 to $50 as the demographics of the area has evolved. First, the cost of a taxi ride was increased by the PUC over the years. Second, because of the increase in the price of real estate in the Aspen area and the subsequent exodus of the working class to homes in more distant locations, the average distance traveled in each Tipsy Taxi ride has increased, thereby increasing the cost. At the onset of the program, in the mid-1980s, the average cost of a ride was approximately $8. It is now approximately $28.

The Tipsy Taxi director must balance a fine line between running the program responsibly and over-managing it to the point that bartenders and officers won't use it. All vouchers are numbered and accounted for, as each one is worth up to $75. Packets of ten vouchers are distributed to each bar by Aspen Police officers. Distribution of the vouchers is a friendly part of routine bar checks by officers and provides an opportunity for pleasant and constructive interaction between the bar employees and officers. The taxi company sends copies of activated vouchers to the director at the end of each month along with a statement and the director checks for accuracy and legitimate use. There have been a few cases of blatant abuse (for example, a bartender issuing himself a voucher or the same person listed as a rider many times during one month). In those instances, the director approaches the bar manager to educate him or her about the problem and requests a solution by the liquor industry instead of law enforcement. Without exception, peer education within the industry has resulted in the resolution of every problem.

Tipsy Taxi was set up initially and continues to be guided by an informal advisory committee, comprised of individuals with various perspectives on the program. Those on the committee include the deputy sheriff who is the director, an Aspen police officer, the taxi company owner, a taxi driver, a bus driver, a bus supervisor, a bar owner, a bartender, the county attorney, the doctor who is the medical advisor, a member of the alcohol abuse recovering community and a citizen at large.

Ridership numbers have varied radically as the program has responded to changing demographics and evolved to meet the changing needs of the community. In its infancy, one major goal of Tipsy Taxi was simply to become known and accepted. At that time, the slogan was "Tipsy Taxi -- if you need it, use it". Any public fear that may have existed at the outset (that names of riders would be kept and somehow used against them at some point) was quickly dispelled. All rides are confidential and, once the rides have been determined by the director to be legitimate, used vouchers are shredded. Summary statistics are kept, but individual names are not kept more than six months. Ridership quickly rose, and it could be argued that Tipsy Taxi became a victim of its own success. It became such a household word that program personnel felt that citizens began to view it as a constitutional right rather than a gift of the community. In the early 1990s then, the challenge became one of paring down blatant abuse to essential rides without losing the ridership of the very people it was designed to protect. Once again, the job of the director focused on the balance of over-use with under-use.

It is very important to note that another variable impacting Tipsy Taxi ridership has been the availability of the public bus system. Until the early-1990s, "down-valley" bus service ceased at 11:30 PM. Because bars stay open until 2:00 AM, it is easy to understand why so many people took a Tipsy Taxi. When bus service was extended to include the early morning hours (until 2:30 AM) in the mid 1990s, Tipsy Taxi ridership declined.

At about the same time that bus service was extended, the program director sensed that local residents were beginning to use Tipsy Taxi as a taxi service rather than for its intended purpose. A publicity program encouraging responsible use of the program was mounted, and education for bartenders to be wary of misuse was increased. Ridership soon dropped to a more sustainable level. As indicated in the figure below, ridership continued to decline through 1999. Currently, program mangers feel that the service perhaps is being underutilized. They plan to mount publicity efforts to increase program awareness and appropriate use.

Figure 2: Number of Tipsy Taxi Riders, 1984-1999

Figure 2: Number of Riders Graph


Although sources of funding have changed over the past 17 years, two basic concepts, required by Pitkin County, have remained constant: tax dollars may not be used to fund Tipsy Taxi fares and the program may not operate in the red.

When the notion of Tipsy Taxi was first considered in 1982, a serendipitous combination of events unfolded that facilitated initiation of the program. In 1982 the Aspen City Council was considering a 10% increase in the liquor license fees charged to bars for the privilege of serving alcohol. In response, the local liquor industry organized a chapter of the Colorado/Wyoming Restaurant Association, the main purpose of which was to lobby against the proposed fee increases. Coincidentally, the Sheriff's Office was trying to organize Tipsy Taxi and, as a result of meetings with all involved parties, a compromise was struck. The restaurant association would agree not to oppose the increase in fees if City Council agreed to dedicate the entire 10% increase solely to the operation of Tipsy Taxi. After a year, the fees would be reevaluated.

With this seed money for a year's operation, the idea of Tipsy Taxi became a reality. It was set up by the Sheriff's Office as a crime prevention program, and it was administered with close cooperation from other local law enforcement and the restaurant association. The community quickly embraced the service. The first year of service was deemed a success.

Ridership rose quickly and the need for more funds became apparent. Aspen City Council (and soon Snowmass Village Town Council, upon presentation of data describing the numbers of rides generated to and from Snowmass Village) continued to support Tipsy Taxi with grants generated from liquor license fees. In addition, other organizations, such as the Aspen Foundation, favorably received grant applications submitted by the Tipsy Taxi director. In addition, many local benefits were also organized by individual restaurants -- Ute City Banque, Taka Sushi, Woody Creek Tavern, and so forth. Tipsy Taxi quickly became an institution in the community and fund-raising benefits for the program were supported enthusiastically.

In 1989, an important source of funding was instituted -- the annual Bartenders' Ball, a black tie affair which is held primarily for locals to celebrate the end of the ski season. It is organized and run by the restaurant association. In its many years of operation, it has generated tens of thousands of dollars and remains an annual tradition.

In 1990 another important source of funding became available. The local county court judge (presiding over the court in which DUI cases are heard), in response from a request from the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office, agreed to levy a fine (minimum $35) upon everyone convicted of an impaired driving offense (DUI, DWAI, DUID) in Pitkin County. This fine system soon became an important source of revenue for Tipsy Taxi. In 1994, revenues began to significantly exceed expenditures. Consequently, Tipsy Taxi funds were placed in an interest-bearing account.

However, in the early 1990s, the program was floundering financially, and it became clear that abuse had risen to an intolerable level. Therefore, the director mounted an educational campaign for bartenders to make reasonable efforts to pare down rides to those that were truly needed. The bartenders embraced the "save Tipsy Taxi" campaign, and the philosophy that the program needed to be policed by the liquor industry and peer pressure rather than by law enforcement was continued -- and it worked.

It should be noted that, in 1993 and 1994, two individuals kept Tipsy Taxi afloat financially. The first was Ed Calesa, a private citizen who not only donated $10,000 himself but also organized a fund-raising campaign that generated an additional $20,000. The second was John Denver, whose benefit concert for Tipsy Taxi [held as partial fulfillment of a DUI sanction (see appendix)] netted $25,000.

The efforts in education, coupled with the good timing of increased bus service until 2:30 AM, had a profound effect. Ridership dropped to the point that the director is now mounting a public service campaign to increase ridership, and once again right the balance.

As can be seen from the graph below, the pattern of expenditures has closely mirrored that of the ridership volume depicted above.

Figure 3: Annual Expenditures for Tipsy Taxi Rides, 1990-1999

Figure 3: Annual Expenditures Graph

One notion that has become clear over the nearly 17 years of Aspen's Tipsy Taxi is that maintaining a ridership level that falls between abuse and under-utilization is a constant balancing act. As the demographics of the community change and as bus service changes, appropriate Tipsy Taxi ridership levels also change. The stated program goal is to make the safety net large enough so that everyone who needs the service will use it, but not to make the net so large that it causes the program to go bankrupt.

The significant sources of income mentioned above, coupled with decreasing ridership, assured the continuance of Tipsy Taxi. In fact, one goal of the director, to have Tipsy Taxi endowed to the point that it is self-supporting on generated interest, is not far from becoming a reality as long as ridership levels remain manageable. As of the end of 1999, Tipsy Taxi had raised $442,517 for the program and had a current balance of $214,540. Accumulated interest accounts for $49,900 of that balance.


In a resort community, quickly changing populations of tourists and high rates of turnover in the service industries (including bartenders and taxi drivers) present a constant challenge. Efforts to raise public awareness about the Tipsy Taxi program have included publicity surrounding fund-raising events such as the Bartenders' Ball and the John Denver concert. In addition, on-going efforts have included advertisements in the local newspaper, radio public service ads (in English and Spanish), flyers distributed in rental cars and hard news coverage about the program. Examples of these materials appear in the appendix.

Back to Contents