It was 1982, and Ellen Anderson was a Pitkin County deputy sheriff responding to a fatal car crash where the Aspen roundabout is now located. A drunken driver heading downvalley had struck a van with a family inside.
There were multiple casualties, leaving Anderson frustrated and heartbroken for the victims.
That evening when she got home from work, Anderson couldn’t get her mind off the incident.
“That tragedy was 100 percent avoidable,” she thought. “Drunk driving is totally avoidable if you can keep the driving separate from the drinking.”
Anderson was determined to find a way to keep people who have too much to drink from driving. She needed a way to intervene before an intoxicated person could get in their car.
What she came up with was the Tipsy Taxi program, which officially celebrates its 30th anniversary Monday.
The sheriff at that time was Dick Kienast, and he supported the idea. Anderson set up open-charge accounts with the two taxi companies in Aspen at that time and made arrangements so that only a certified peace officer or local bartenders could access those accounts.
Next came raising money for the program, as the taxi companies would be charging their current rates for the service.
“Some very forward-thinking people came to our support via fundraising and donations,” Anderson said. “Originally, I was hoping that Tipsy Taxi would last six months, and if we ran out of money, then that’s that. But six months later, the money was still coming in. The community recognized the service, embraced the concept, and donations have been coming in for 30 years.”
Jimmy Yeager has operated Jimmy’s restaurant in Aspen for 17 years. He calls the Tipsy Taxi program an amazing benefit to any bar owner.
“We all understand that drinking and driving is a problem,” Yeager said. “Tipsy Taxi is a great tool that helps mitigate the potential danger of someone driving that’s past the legal alcohol limit. It gives bartenders a way to intervene in a positive manner. The program is one of the greatest things this community has done. Even if it saves just one life, it’s worth it.”
Erin Harris has tended bar at Jimmy’s for three years and agrees.
“Sometimes the Tipsy Taxi is the only way to get someone home safely,” Harris said. “It’s not only a great service for drunk people; it keeps other drivers safe, as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that the program has saved lives.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a study of Aspen’s Tipsy Taxi in 2000. The study concluded, “Examination of crash data indicated that nighttime, injury and fatal crashes all declined after implementation of Tipsy Taxi.”
When Anderson started the program, she set it up as a crime-prevention program through the Sheriff’s Office so she could enlist the help of other public servants. The county Treasurer’s Office takes in all the donations, and that money goes into a separate line item within the county budget. That money is dedicated to the Tipsy Taxi program exclusively and is interest-bearing.
The program runs about $17,000 a year to pay for the taxi service. Funding traditionally comes from donations and fundraising events. One of the biggest fundraisers was an event called the Bartender’s Ball, which was held through the 1990s. It was an Aspen black-tie party that included dinner, live music and dancing. All the funds raised went to nonprofits, including Tipsy Taxi.
“We have enough money for another few years of service,” Anderson said. “But we need to start thinking about the future of Tipsy Taxi. There hasn’t been one nanosecond of interrupted service for Tipsy Taxi in 30 years of service. This is a gift from the community to the community, and I’m hoping the community will help with more donations.”
Anyone interested in donating money to Tipsy Taxi can do so by mailing funds to the Pitkin County Treasurer at 506 E. Main St., Aspen, 81611.