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San Diego Is Miles Behind On Taxi Safety Standards

Evening Edition

Aired 6/20/13 on KPBS News.

A study last month called into question low wages and poor working conditions for taxicab drivers. But what about conditions for passengers? Are we safe in the cars we hire?

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

More than half of the taxis on the road have more than 200,000 miles on them, according to San Diego State and the Center on Policy Initiatives.

When a San Francisco taxi hits 325,000 miles, it's taken out of service. In San Jose, it's 400,000 miles. Atlanta pulls cabs once they reach 5 years old. And in Seattle, taxis can't be older than 7 years.

Cities across the nation place limits on vehicle mileage and age to protect drivers and passengers. For taxis operating in the city of San Diego, no such caps exist.

"San Diego is, like, open, meaning that you'll see that cars run about three, four, five [hundred thousand miles]," said Mikaiil Hussein, president of United Taxi Workers of San Diego. "I used to drive a 625,000-mile car, so safety conditions for the cars are very bad."

Hussein said he was blacklisted as a driver after complaining to the Metropolitan Transit System about working conditions for drivers.

A recent study by San Diego State University and the Center on Policy Initiatives, a think tank that focuses on labor and social issues, suggests many other drivers have serious concerns about the taxis they lease.

Drivers who spoke with the researchers said they worried about the age of the cars, which are often shared by two drivers so they can run 24 hours a day. There were widespread reports of owners placing tape over illuminated warning lights on their dashboards – a claim confirmed by MTS taxicab manager Bill Kellerman. And 20 percent of those surveyed said they've shelled out for repairs themselves because the car owners won't.

Speak City Heights pulled the titles for all 1,086 of the taxis operating in the city and found nearly 40 percent were 10 years or older.

About 20 percent were salvage vehicles.

A salvage title can mean simply that the car was bought at auction; many are old police cruisers the department retires automatically after 7 years or 120,000 miles.

But 40 percent of the salvages operating as taxis had frame damage, were labeled junk vehicles or considered a total loss by an insurance agency, according to the data.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that it's unsafe," said Jan Mendoza, a spokesperson for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. "But it is a flag on the registration and title of the car so that an owner will be aware that it had been in a serious collision and that it may have problems or it may not have problems."

Mendoza said a "total loss" title means it was more economical for the insurance company to pay out for the wrecked car than to have it rebuilt.

No one who spoke with Speak City Heights could back claims that an accident was caused by a vehicle's age or a previous wreck. But our data shows the salvages were 7 percent more likely than non-salvages to have two or more crashes on their records.

Chicago has outlawed the use of salvages as taxis. San Francisco has special inspection requirements for them. In San Diego, they're treated just like every other taxi.

Alfredo Hueso is co-owner of USA Cab and has 17 salvages in his fleet. He said the city doesn't need to craft a policy for salvages or place caps on mileage and age.

"I think that's pretty arbitrary and capricious," Hueso said. "In our industry, the most important thing is the maintenance of that vehicle. You could have a brand new vehicle and if you don't maintain it or keep it nicely, it will fall apart."

Alfredo Hueso has operated USA Cab with his brother Antonio Hueso since 1982. Their brother Ben Hueso is a state senator.

USA Cab is one of three taxi companies with a comprehensive maintenance program and on-site mechanics. Hueso said his cars are seen monthly for oil changes and check-ups. His Grant Hill shop has two car lifts and a room stocked with oil drums, tires and belts.

Kellerman, who manages the MTS inspection and permitting process for taxicabs, has a similar take.

"I'm not concerned we don't have a cap," Kellerman said. "It's something that we might have in the future, but right now, with the inspection that we do and the comprehensive nature of the inspections, the cars are safe."

Taxis go through a scheduled MTS inspection annually, with a 95 percent pass rate. Cars are also called into the MTS garage if problems are found during a surprise field inspection. About 18 percent of the roughly 600 cars contacted in the field annually have safety violations, Kellerman said.

Kellerman said that the MTS inspection program is rigorous compared with other jurisdictions. The county and Chula Vista will waive their own inspections if a car already has approval from MTS.

And MTS is one of the few taxi administrations to use its own garage and hire its own full-time mechanics for inspections. Los Angeles asks taxicab owners to have their cars checked at a commercial auto repair shop. Other cities rely on police officers to examine cabs. That's how the city of San Diego, which is currently considering whether to take back responsibility for the taxi industry, did it before MTS took over in 1989.

Despite giving San Diego's taxis high marks, Kellerman admitted there's a wide spectrum when it comes to cab owners and how they maintain their cars.

As he spoke with Speak City Heights, the car lift in his garage on Newton Avenue in Barrio Logan hoisted a taxi owned by one of the smaller outfits in town. Mechanics spun the tires and looked closely at the undercarriage.

The diagnosis: a torn anti-lock brake system sensor, which notifies the driver of brake problems, oil leaks and a crack in the body above the drive shaft.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Mikaiil Hussein was blacklisted after complaining to the owner of his taxi. He was blacklisted after filing a complaint with MTS.

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Avatar for user 'CanyonBluffsBill'

CanyonBluffsBill | June 20, 2013 at 11:58 a.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

This article has a misleading headline. Given the alamist tone of the headline, I expected to see some facts regarding the safety record of SD taxis compared to taxis in other cities. Yet, the writer states: "No one who spoke with Speak City Heights could back claims that an accident was caused by a vehicle's age or a previous wreck. But our data shows the salvages were 7 percent more likely than non-salvages to have two or more crashes on their records." Assuming taxi drivers are qualified, a car that has been in multiple crashes isn't necessarily less safe than any other car.

The headline implies that because San Diego does not have the same degree of regulation as other cities regarding the age of cars in its taxi fleet, riding in a taxi in San Diego is taking an unacceptable risk. And yet, the article pointed out that some cab companies are voluntarily going the "extra mile" to maintain their vehicles. The article provides value in this regard: I now know the name of a cab company I am more likely to call based on what I learned about its attitude toward maintenance.

Many of us want a diverse array of transportation choices. However, advocating for unnecessarily stringent regulations will ultimately limit choice.

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Avatar for user 'JCortez'

JCortez | June 21, 2013 at 2:22 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

One has to wonder why KPBS continues to carry the torch for the United Taxi Worker's Association. Why are they attempting to create a story where one really doesn't exist and why does the same Mikaiil guy show up in all their reports. The taxi owners are not violating any rules and MTS is doing their regulatory duty.

Objective reporting??? I don't think so. I think KPBS is acting like an extension of the Union. Just watch.....they will continue to produce these one sided taxi reports until they reach their collective goal. What that is exactly depends on what their comrades dictate.

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Avatar for user 'Megan Burks'

Megan Burks, KPBS Staff | June 21, 2013 at 3:11 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

Thanks for reading and commenting, JCortez. As Tom Fudge addressed in the comments of our previous story on the taxi industry (, our coverage is not motivated by the taxicab union. This is the first report that includes comments from Mikaiil Hussein.

Please know that in preparing our reports, we spoke to several taxi drivers, many of whom are not active members of United Taxi Workers of San Diego, to confirm what was highlighted in an independent study conducted by SDSU and CPI researchers. The data used in this story specifically were independently compiled and analyzed by KPBS.

The report also gives ample space to the perspectives of taxi company owners and the Metropolitan Transit System. In fact, the story has reassured some readers that MTS and taxicab owners are doing their due diligence.

The intent of this report is to have readers walk away with useful information, no matter which side (if any) they come down on. It has done that.

Following our initial reporting on the subject, we were contacted by a taxicab owner who compiled his own study with radio dispatch companies. We followed up to obtain the study, but it has not yet been produced.

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Avatar for user 'ninotrovato'

ninotrovato | June 21, 2013 at 5:24 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

I completely concur with JCortez. Even before reading his comments I was preparing to question KPBS on why the OBVIOUS bias on this issue. Is it racially motivated? I am in charge of 11 taxicabs and approximately 40 drivers from all over the world. One of my drivers made over 300 dollars take home twice this week. He works 10 hours per day.
Another of my drivers made over 500 dollars last week, his worst week ever. He works 11 hours per day and 5 days per week. Another driver works the other 2 day shifts and guess what, he makes over 100 dollars per day too. These are net, take home figures.

Some of my cars are salvaged. You, or any certified mechanic would NEVER know that if I did not tell them.

I bought one car a few years ago that was a 1998 model. Old huh. It only had 33,000 miles on it and it lasted 4 years, making money for numerous families.


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Avatar for user 'ninotrovato'

ninotrovato | June 21, 2013 at 5:40 p.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

KPBS, the UTW, Bob Filner, and the City Council, who are in the mayors pocket should worry more about teaching drivers how to make more than $4.50 per hour. Or at least teach them to report all of their earnings. They should take credit cards, stay off their cell phones while driving with passengers, take the most direct routes to their customers destinations, and learn to create repeat business.

MTS is issuing citations to many illegal operators and the city will not prosecute these offenses. They have chosen to spend money on a study which was done only 2 years ago. Too many taxicabs on the road already. That was the findings of AN INDEPENDENT report only 2 years ago. If things are worse now for the drivers than how can you justify putting more cabs on the road. If you want to please many and upset a few, that does not mean that it is the right thing to do. If your ideology is that of an open market than just say so.
STOP THE BIAS KPBS. I used to look to you for the truth.

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Avatar for user 'latnlmo'

latnlmo | June 22, 2013 at 10:49 a.m. ― 3 years, 9 months ago

what about limo and private drivers and there cars and some that work all day and night ther are companies that have driver work twentyfour hours with litter rest and cars that are nice and clean but the miles hum maybe airport authority can help by sponsering these cars so that there would always be new cars on the road for drivers who cant afford a new vehicle every four or five years and also check drivers times just like truck drivers keep a log and time

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