How does the city get rid of taxi drivers who flagrantly violate the regulations? What would it take to improve the public's perception of the drivers?
The City Council has tried to answer both questions with a bill designed to improve the quality of taxicab service. The bill is scheduled for final council approval in a few days. The manner in which the council arrived at the bill's provisions suggests that the council did not do what it wanted to do but what it was allowed to do.
In the beginning, City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) began with the premise that a few drivers, a few bad apples if you will, were causing major problems in the industry. Those drivers were characterized as individuals who had a poor knowledge of the city, often were rude to passengers and refused to travel to certain sections of the city.
Crawford's initial solution was to limit the number of drivers, increase the number of questions on the hackers' licensing examination and, in effect, prevent foreign students from driving taxicabs. Crawford maintained that many residents were having problems with drivers who did not speak English well enough to converse with passengers or were discourteous.
The taxi industry screamed no to the limitation idea, arguing that the council would hurt drivers who wanted to work part time. Some City Council members warned that a law that excluded a particular group from the industry would be unconstitutional.
The council dropped both provisions.
The second time around, Crawford sugggested treating all new and old drivers equally. They would all be required to meet a two-year residency requirement, attend a training school and pass an expanded licensing exam. A City Council committee approved the changes.
Once again, the taxicab industry fumed. Some drivers were stunned that the city would even consider asking drivers who have been hacking for 20 or 30 years to take a training course that would, among other things, teach them how to recognize and locate federal buildings and tourist attractions. And the City Council's counsel noted that a two-year residency requirement would stand little chance of surviving a constitutional challenge.
Out came the idea of sending all drivers, all 11,000 of them, to school and the residency requirement was dropped.
Instead, the council tentatively adopted a measure that would:
* Require all new drivers to take a 12-hour training course that would teach drivers a minimal knowledge of the city's geography, taxicab regulations and public relations skills.
* Expand the hacker's exam from 25 to 60 questions.
* Increase the annual licensing fee from $5 to $25.
* Give the mayor the authority to establish a point system to evaluate the record of each driver. After drivers receive a predetermined number of points, their licenses could be revoked or suspended.
When the council completed its initial vote on the bill, Crawford called it a "compromise bill" that would certainly lead to an improvement in local taxicab service.
So, if the council votes yes on Tuesday, the city will have a law that has had input from the community, taxicab drivers as well as the riding public.
But in its efforts to arrive at a palatable and legal solution to the problems caused by some cabdrivers, the council may have overlooked a simplistic solution suggested by some witnesses who testified during a public hearing on the bill. Enforce the existing regulations, they said.
The city now has four taxicab inspectors to police 11,000 drivers.