City Council members flipped through 20 falsified hacker identification cards during a hearing yesterday and heard District officials testify that the city has only four inspectors to enforce taxicab regulations for 11,000 cabdrivers.
The council's public works committee heard the testimony at a hearing on a bill designed to tighten rules and regulations governing the taxicab industry.
The hearing was held against a backdrop of a growing number of compaints about rude drivers, refusals to transport passengers to some areas of the city, the inability of some drivers to find well-known landmarks without directions from passengers, and many drivers' insufficient command of English to communicate with passengers.
The bill would limit the number of licensed drivers to 10,500 and expand the hacker's license examination from 25 questions to a 50-question, multiple-choice oral test and five questions requiring written answers. The bill would limit issuance of licenses to United States citizens, aliens with permanent or refugee status and other aliens who are authorized to work full-time.
The bill has won the support of both many citizens and hackers. Some witnesses, however, argued that the bill does not address the industry's real problems.
Some cab drivers testified that economic hardships caused by a taxicab fare structure that produces small amounts of money for long hauls has forced some drivers to pick and choose their passengers. If the city wants improvements, it should increase fares and hire more inspectors to enforce existing laws, the drivers testified.
"This legislation is not going to solve what we are all groping for . . . decent, prompt and dependable service," testified Fred B. Matthews, executive secretary for the Taxicab Industry Group. "We've got more rules than we need right now, and the problem is lack of enforcement."
Nevertheless, the industry group surveyed local drivers who voted 641 to 317 in favor of a limitation on cab licenses in the District.
During yesterday's seven-hour hearing, two witnesses -- both representing the local chapter of the international committee against racism -- accused Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who introduced the bill, of using it to "spearhead a racist attack on foreign-born drivers," and demanded that Crawford apologize.
Rod Green, a member of the committee against racism, accused Crawford of inviting people to blame foreigners for the entire industry's problems.
Crawford declined to respond to the charge of racism. But public works chairman Jerry A. Moore Jr., (R-At Large), who presided over the hearing, told Green that the bill had nothing to do with racism. "The problem is hackers in the District, whatever race they belong to," Moore said.
Neville Cramer, a representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, testified that some foreign students are dropping out of school to work full-time as cabdrivers after they had sworn that they would not need to work to fund an education when they entered the country.
But witness Wesley Watkins, area executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that he was "astonished" that the bill would take away authorization for part-time work for students that is permitted by the State Department. He said the bill and some witnesses appeared to be "making aliens the scapegoat" when the real problem is a lack of enforcement.
Last year, the city's four full-time inspectors confiscated 20 falsified driver identification cards, which were shown to the council panel.
John Touchstone, director of the city's public works department, acknowledged the deficiencies of limited enforcement. He said that his department is working on a "comprehensive program" to address what he characterized as serious problems in the industry.
At one time or another 11 of the City Council's 13 members attended the hearing. The Crawford bill is seen by some as one phase of a council effort to make major changes in the taxicab industry. is seen by some as one phase of a council effort to make major changes in the taxicab industry.