Taxi inspectors travel rough road between regulations and disgruntled cabbies
By Mike DeBonis,
Timothy Evans, a D.C. taxicab inspector, is good at many things. One of them is counting heads through auto glass at night.
Evans notices too many inside a taxi jerking slowly up Fifth Street NW — not the seven or eight passengers he sometimes sees sardine-stuffed into the Crown Victorias and Town Cars that make up the bulk of the city fleet, but still too many.
He pops on his car’s flashing lights. The cab stops, and out they come, six of them.
While Evans goes to chat with the driver, his partner, Carl Martin, calmly absorbs invective — not from the driver but from the riders, a group of activists from California who are in town for the Occupy Congress protest.
Nadine Hayes, 59, of Camarillo, is none too happy her driver ended up with $50 worth of tickets — $25 for overloading, $25 for an improper manifest. “He was doing us a service and taking us to where we wanted to go,” she said. “I think we’ve got far too many laws. I think the American people are being so oppressed.”
Alas for Hayes, if the wishes of some city lawmakers and regulators are granted, there could soon be more laws for the city taxicab industry.
On Monday, a D.C. Council committee will hear testimony on a bill that proposes sweeping taxi reforms, including mandatory credit-card readers, more fuel-efficient vehicles and more extensive driver training. The legislation also would boost enforcement, increasing the number of inspectors from 12 to a minimum of 20.
“Hack inspectors” such as Evans and Martin are on the front lines of D.C. taxicab regulation, and they’re also at the core of taxi drivers’ complaints about that regulation. Several drivers interviewed said they consider the inspectors harassing, rude, arbitrary and generally unfair, and they fear new regulations and increased enforcement will only exacerbate that.
But a poll shows that taxi riders take a dismal view of city cab service — more than three-quarters of the 4,000-plus who responded to a council-sponsored Internet survey deemed city cab service “fair” or “poor.” City taxi regulators say increasing the number and quality of inspectors is the way to improve that.
Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, said most rider gripes are addressed by regulations already on the books that need to be better enforced. “My hack inspectors are like the referees and umpires at the sporting event,” he said.
Should the reform bill pass, Linton said, he plans to increase the force to 29 inspectors and send them to the city police academy for more complete training.
A force of that size would mean eight or nine inspectors on the street around the clock. Currently, no more than five or six inspectors are on the job at any given time. In fact, late-night shifts have been eliminated entirely in recent years. Evans says drivers now know they’re free to flout regulations with impunity after midnight. “They know our schedule better than we do,” he said.
Evans, a shift leader with 10 years’ experience, and Martin, with four years on the force, are two of Linton’s top inspectors. They drive a late-model Chevy Impala around the city, patrolling mostly downtown but also in night-life areas such as Adams Morgan, U Street NW, H Street NE and Capitol Hill.
They’re versed in the vagaries of Title 31, the chapters of D.C. municipal regulations that cover taxicab matters, from licensing to record-keeping to cab operations to driver appearance (no “shorts, ‘T’ shirts as an outer garment, sweatpants, sweatshirts, sweatsuits or sandals”). Inspectors know how to parse license plate numbers, parry driver abuse with “verbal judo” and deal with other compromising situations. “You turn down bribes on a daily basis,” Evans said.
Evans said his philosophy is safety first — check the tire tread, check the lights, make sure no dashboard warning lights are blinking. Since the city switched from a zone to a meter system in 2007, he’s had to look closely at those meters, checking seals affixed by licensed meter-installation companies. A missing or tampered seal means a big fine for a driver — $1,000.
But most infractions are relatively small-bore. For Evans, most inspection stops begin like this: “Do you have a face card and manifest today?”
He puts the question to Tesfaye Tessema, 54, whose cab had a hubcap missing as it cruised down 14th Street NW.
Tessema hands over his “face card” — his commission-issued hack license, so called because of the oversize portrait intended to keep unscrupulous license holders from sharing them with unlicensed drivers. He also hands over a manifest sheet, which records a driver’s trips, including mileage and fare, as they happen.
Manifest violations are by far the most common infractions hack inspectors write up. Some drivers are just forgetful; others, officials said, want to hide revenue from cab companies or tax collectors.
Evans has Tessema print out the receipt from his last fare and takes the documents back to his cruiser. He notices that the last fare wasn’t recorded on the manifest and, more seriously, that the receipt’s time stamp is off by about an hour. That’s grounds for an expensive ticket and the removal of Tessema’s meter seal, putting him out of business until he can get it recalibrated.
But in the end, Evans tells Tessema to go straight to a meter company and hands him two $25 tickets — for an improper manifest and the missing hubcap. A few minutes’ discrepancy, Evans says, are “not worth $1,000 to me.”
Tessema, who said he didn’t have a fare to record on the manifest, isn’t all that grateful for the leniency. “It is not a professional approach that they have,” he said after Evans walked off. “They have some kind of animosity against cabdrivers.”
But he still has less to complain about than driver Erby Casseus, 35, pulled over earlier in the evening outside Union Station — a spot where city hack inspectors are guaranteed action and often sit for hours closely watching the taxi stand.
A member of Evans’s crew watched Casseus’s Barwood cab, licensed in Maryland, pick up a fare right after dropping another off at the station. After the inspector pulled Casseus over, the rider told her that he was headed downtown.
Under a regional agreement, only District-registered cabs can haul passengers on trips solely within the District. If a Maryland cab picks up a fare in the District, for instance, the trip must end in Maryland. The flouting of that particular rule especially vexes D.C. drivers, who feel non-District cabbies are impinging on their livelihoods.
Evans understands why the out-of-state cabs do it — “it’s a quick fare for a quick couple of dollars,” he said. But for Casseus, it will cost quite a bit.
An inspector removes the license plates from the cab, which will be towed to a private lot. Casseus, who lives in Baltimore, will have to return to town the next day to retrieve it. He’s facing more than $1,000 in fines, plus towing and impound fees.
“This is for nothing,” he protests. “The guy jumped in my car.”
Evans hears that one a lot. “If he jumped in the car, why did you keep driving?” he asks.
Casseus gets on his cellphone, trying to get a ride home to Baltimore. He declines to criticize Evans and company. “I don’t say anything bad about the inspectors,” he says.