San Diego Is Miles Behind on Taxi Safety Standards

San Diego Is Miles Behind on Taxi Safety Standards

Photo courtesy of Nicholas McVicker

A study last month called into question low wages and safety for taxi drivers. Mayor Bob Filner is now mulling an industry overhaul that would transfer management from the Metropolitan Transit System to the city.

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 five years old. And in Seattle, taxis can’t be older than seven 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.

Photo by Megan Burks

Photo by Megan Burks

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.

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 seven 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.

Photo ourtesy of Nicholas McVicker

Photo courtesy of Nicholas McVicker

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

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.”

USA Cab is one of three taxi companies with a comprehensive maintenance program and onsite mechanics. Hueso says 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.

 

Video by Nicholas McVicker, KPBS

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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Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.


Megan Burks

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at meburks@kpbs.org or 619.550.5665.

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20 comments
Steven Croft
Steven Croft subscriber

It sounds good that the MTS inspects cabs to ensure safety. If the inspections are completed in a thorough manner the vehicles should be reasonably safe. Similar inspections are done on Commercial trucks to ensure they are not going to have a catastrophic failure on the road. The mileage or a salvage title does not effect the safety as long as repairs and maintenance were kept up. I imagine the 650000 mile cab had some serious work done over the years including at least an engine and transmission overhaul or two, steering work and a huge number of fluid changes. A broken antilock break sensor wire and crack in the body or trans tunnel are no big deal to repair if that is the worst of it we are in good shape riding in a cab.

Mike
Mike subscriber

MTS is busy with doing their city transit stuff. Cab regulations reform is being delayed for years. Recent news also reports city police are being burdened with enforcement of newer non-regulated car services. So why not just get rid of cab regulations all together? Less work for MTS, less work for the police, less work for the city. Cab companies can run their dirty old cabs all they want and keep exploiting their drivers. MTS will leave them alone to do (or not do) whatever they want. Uber and Lyft and any other car service can come in and drive as much as they want without worrying about cops. Then, we'll let the consumers decide with their money which car they want to ride in. Wouldn't that be the most capitalistic way of resolving this issue? If a passenger is injured, the driver goes to jail. Seems pretty simple. Landlords don't get their apts inspected by the city. Home Depot doesn't need a medallion to rent out floor sanders. If you want to drive a cab, you keep your car up and buy insurance...that's it. Why bother being under a cab company's thumb? Why waste MTS and cops' time with all this unnecessary regulation?

mwkingsandiego
mwkingsandiego subscriber

Interesting this comes out the same days as the article about taxi drivers fighting back on Uber and Lyft. I think if we compare some facts, we'll see why the taxis feel threatened, but I don't think rumor-mongering about Uber is the right way for the taxi fleet to fix their competitive situation.


For the record, I switched all my taxi needs to Terramoto after being in a Crown Vic, probably ex-police/CHP taxi that I could see had 300,000+ miles on it and some very alarming noises coming out of the rear suspension. I've been in taxis all around the country and San Diego has the absolute worst of vehicles. And frankly the drivers here look no more respectable than their vehicles. Actually that's true across the country too - fleets with clean vehicles have courteous, well dressed, English-speaking drivers.



Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister

This was an interesting article, but I wonder exactly how San Diego is behind on safety standards. Do our taxis experience more accidents than elsewhere that can be blamed on the vehicle's age or operating condition? Based on the content of the article, the only supported conclusion is San Diego's safety standards are just unusual since MTS apparently does more rigorous inspections than other cities. Is this system better than other cities? Worse?

Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister subscriber

This was an interesting article, but I wonder exactly how San Diego is behind on safety standards. Do our taxis experience more accidents than elsewhere that can be blamed on the vehicle's age or operating condition? Based on the content of the article, the only supported conclusion is San Diego's safety standards are just unusual since MTS apparently does more rigorous inspections than other cities. Is this system better than other cities? Worse?

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson

Alluded to in this article is that San Diego taxis are less safe than other cities. Just because cars are older doesn't necessarily mean they are less safe. Where's the data that says San Diego cabs cause more accidents because they are older? The author cites none. Furthermore it would be great if we stopped believing in magic solutions. There are no solutions only trade-offs. There's no government rules or inspectors that will magically fix everything at no cost to anyone. More rules and inspections may or may not produce more safety but they will for SURE raise the cost. There is a cost to everything. I encourage the author to examine more deeply the cost/benefit analysis when assessing or advocating government regulations and intervention in the free market.

Michael Robertson
Michael Robertson subscribermember

Alluded to in this article is that San Diego taxis are less safe than other cities. Just because cars are older doesn't necessarily mean they are less safe. Where's the data that says San Diego cabs cause more accidents because they are older? The author cites none. Furthermore it would be great if we stopped believing in magic solutions. There are no solutions only trade-offs. There's no government rules or inspectors that will magically fix everything at no cost to anyone. More rules and inspections may or may not produce more safety but they will for SURE raise the cost. There is a cost to everything. I encourage the author to examine more deeply the cost/benefit analysis when assessing or advocating government regulations and intervention in the free market.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

With fares far above other cities, why is it necessary to run these cabs so many miles? I think the answer is what I've suspected all along: The cab owners who lease these vehicles to drivers are making a killing; the drivers and the public are getting screwed. When I saw the name "Hueso" as one of the owners, my suspicions were heightened.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

With fares far above other cities, why is it necessary to run these cabs so many miles? I think the answer is what I've suspected all along: The cab owners who lease these vehicles to drivers are making a killing; the drivers and the public are getting screwed. When I saw the name "Hueso" as one of the owners, my suspicions were heightened.

shawn fox
shawn fox

I take exception to the title, which implies without providing any supporting data at all that somehow San Diego is behind in anything. This makes the preposterous assumption that more governement regulations are automatically good. I use the towncar services myself. To and from the airport they are nearly the same price as a taxi and the cars are in great shape and are very comfortable. Who regulates the limo and towncar companies? My favorite part was where she wrote that some cities have police officers inspect cars as though police officers know anything about cars. I'd much rather have a professional mechanic inspect a car. Looks like some isolated incidents, and unsubstantiated accusations will results in more city workers, collecting more outrageous pensions and beneifts. I hope prop b is implemented before they create some new government agency.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

I take exception to the title, which implies without providing any supporting data at all that somehow San Diego is behind in anything. This makes the preposterous assumption that more governement regulations are automatically good. I use the towncar services myself. To and from the airport they are nearly the same price as a taxi and the cars are in great shape and are very comfortable. Who regulates the limo and towncar companies? My favorite part was where she wrote that some cities have police officers inspect cars as though police officers know anything about cars. I'd much rather have a professional mechanic inspect a car. Looks like some isolated incidents, and unsubstantiated accusations will results in more city workers, collecting more outrageous pensions and beneifts. I hope prop b is implemented before they create some new government agency.

Maurice Samuels
Maurice Samuels

San Diego Is a Corporate Paradise for Business and a Economic Ghetto for its Citizens! :(

Anthony Wagner
Anthony Wagner

Megan: great article. I take exception to your statement that a salvaged title can just mean it was sold at auction. In my prior professional estimation, a majority of cars sold at auction are not salvaged. The way I read the the article, there was an inference that because a car is sold a auction it could be called salvaged... CA DMV Definition: What Is a Revived Salvage Vehicle? A revived salvage vehicle is a vehicle that has been reported to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) by the owner or insurance company as a total loss and now has been restored to operational condition. (For information on revived junked vehicles, see the How To: Reregister a Junk Vehicle (HTVR 4) brochure.)

Anthony Wagner
Anthony Wagner subscribermember

Megan: great article. I take exception to your statement that a salvaged title can just mean it was sold at auction. In my prior professional estimation, a majority of cars sold at auction are not salvaged. The way I read the the article, there was an inference that because a car is sold a auction it could be called salvaged... CA DMV Definition: What Is a Revived Salvage Vehicle? A revived salvage vehicle is a vehicle that has been reported to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) by the owner or insurance company as a total loss and now has been restored to operational condition. (For information on revived junked vehicles, see the How To: Reregister a Junk Vehicle (HTVR 4) brochure.)

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Bill, sounds like a good opportunity for you to get licensed plop down a couple grand for your permit and inspection (and all cabs are inspected by certified mechanics for safety prior to permitting), signup with a dispatch service and get rich!

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Bill, sounds like a good opportunity for you to get licensed plop down a couple grand for your permit and inspection (and all cabs are inspected by certified mechanics for safety prior to permitting), signup with a dispatch service and get rich!

Megan Burks
Megan Burks

Thanks for reading and commenting. Police cruisers, other government vehicles, and old rental cars sold at auction can have salvage titles regardless of whether they've been in a crash.

David Hall
David Hall

As Anthony says, there is no relationship between salvage and auctions other than some auctioned vehicles are salvaged. This is exactly the kind of mistake that a good editor should catch.

Megan Burks
Megan Burks author

Thanks for reading and commenting. Police cruisers, other government vehicles, and old rental cars sold at auction can have salvage titles regardless of whether they've been in a crash.

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

As Anthony says, there is no relationship between salvage and auctions other than some auctioned vehicles are salvaged. This is exactly the kind of mistake that a good editor should catch.