published Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Taxi -- prepaid

by Amy Williams
Audio clip

John 'Thunder' Thornton

  • photo
    Taxi-on-demand card.

While attending the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Johnny Thornton Jr. often heard stories of other students driving themselves home after a night of partying.

The stories and the potential danger posed by students driving under the influence inspired an idea that could ensure students could always get home, no matter what.

His first thought, a credit card, but not just any credit card, would work. Since college students are known to take advantage of their parents' good intentions, this card needed restrictions -- it would be good for use only in a taxi.

"There's a huge concern about driving while intoxicated," said John "Thunder" Thornton, Johnny's dad and owner of development company Thunder Enterprises. "But if they've got a Taxi On Demand card, and they know that card could only be spent on a taxi, then I think they would be much more inclined to arrive at their destination safely, via a taxi."

On Monday, Mr. Thornton and the company's president, former UT basketball star Dane Bradshaw, will officially launch Taxi On Demand across the country.

Mr. Thornton made a seven figure investment in the concept, and his team has spent months working with taxi cab companies across the country to set up the system.

"It's not just a company; it's a cause," Mr. Thornton said. "I have not been as excited about a business since 1984 when I started American Rug Craftsman."

Mr. Thornton eventually sold the rug company, which is now a part of Mohawk Industries.

In addition to use as a safe way home for people, not just college students, the card also could be used by anyone who worries they could get caught without a safe ride home, officials said.

The concept of Taxi On Demand is based on that of a gift card, but this card is accepted anywhere Discover cards are taken. The cards are loaded with an amount starting at $35, and charged fees starting at $2.95 and based on the preloaded amount.

When users find themselves in need of a ride, all they need do is call the toll free number of the back of the card, enter the area code of the city where the cab is requested to be connected to a taxi company that accepts the card. In Chattanooga, two cab companies are in the system -- Athens Taxi Company and All-American Taxi.

Randy Van Hooser, owner of All-American, said he thinks the concept has amazing potential. All 12 of the taxis in his fleet accept credit cards.

"There's an unlimited opportunity to use that card," he said.

Mr. Van Hooser suggested potential uses for the card by charitable organizations could use the cards to help clients get back and forth to work. The trucking industry could use the card to help shuttle drivers around town, he said.

The company's officials say they have gotten a good response from the cab companies they are working with across the company. They've also gotten positive feedback from parents, and even leaders of groups against drunk driving.

Mr. Bradshaw was hired to work with Taxi On Demand in August. He had been playing basketball in Europe when the opportunity came along to join Taxi On Demand. He had planned to continue with the sport for a few years and had gotten a few job offers along the way, but nothing that piqued his interest.

"This one was so unique and was going to go on with or without me," Mr. Bradshaw said. "Everyone wants to feel like they're doing something with their lives that they're proud of, and basketball's been great, but you talk about an opportunity to get into the business world and have a chance at success and save some lives, that's the perfect combination."

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Jack_Ryan said...

I was a taxi driver for Yellow Cab in a large city. Our meters did have credit card swipes, however, we only accepted Visa and Master-card and Discover was not one of them. The college students in fraternities and sororities had a charge account with the cab company -- some with limitations just to get to the clubs and back to the house where they stayed.

Most if not all Taxi Drivers are independent contractors and can make exceptions to "cab company policy" and have a personal account and have a different arrangement with their fares, but this is not common practice.

I have given several rides that could not pay, but that got very old real fast and the taxi company wanted its' lease money. On several occasions I had the police come because I was not paid, and sometimes I took collateral on a promise for the student to pay, but normally someone else paid the fare because the student choose to depend on somebody to take care of them.

I recommend that an arrangement be made before not paying cab drivers, because they work very hard for their money and is likely not to respond politely when they find out they worked for free.

July 19, 2009 at 11:42 a.m.
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