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.
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.
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.