Proposed fixes could facilitate smoother rides

Honolulu Star Advertiser - September 22, 2015
Allison Schaefers and Dana Williams

Better customer service, competition for the airport contract and tighter safety regulations are some of the ways Honolulu’s taxi system could be improved, critics say.
But city officials have yet to take action on recommendations made by their own task force, which was created a year ago after cabdriver Enio Tablas was charged in the sexual assault of two female passengers.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, serves on the transportation committee, said the Council has been distracted by issues like homelessness. She also said some Council members have been reluctant to make taxi changes without simultaneously addressing ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, whose members use phone apps to schedule rides directly with drivers.
She acknowledged customer service and safety problems need to be fixed.

“Clearly, we need a (taxi) database, and there needs to be tightening up of certification. We also need a complaint line that works.” she said. “How does the public know that any driver or company is safe to use? I’m going to take a look at this, and I’m going to propose some kind of legislation this year.”

Task force member Sheri Kajiwara, director of the city’s Customer Services Department, which oversees taxis, submitted the group’s recommendations in February. The group proposed changes to city and state rules outlining how background checks are conducted, including:

>> Extending criminal background checks to 10 years from two years and conducting a nationwide check, rather than just looking at Hawaii convictions.
>> Adding cybercrimes, identity theft and fraud to the list of offenses that could disqualify a taxi applicant.
>> Allowing the agency that oversees taxis to conduct background checks through the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center, rather than requiring police to conduct the checks. Police support this idea.
>> Granting increased taxi enforcement powers to police.

“Members agreed that state and city legislation was needed immediately to prevent (unscrupulous) individuals from taking advantage of our public and visitors,” Kajiwara said.
Based on feedback from the group, the Customer Services Department will resume field inspections of taxis, which were discontinued years ago. The department recently increased the number of vehicle inspectors to 14 from eight.
“When a spot check occurs, there is an inspection of all documents, licenses and equipment required to operate as a taxicab,” Kajiwara said in an email. “Although these checks are conducted for enforcement purposes, they can provide information that may impact the renewal of a taxicab certificate of a problem individual.”
Kobayashi said the taxi industry should also become more accountable.
“Taxi companies need to take more responsibility for the safety of passengers and drivers. We can’t lay it all on the government,” she said. “We have to ensure that all regulations are adequate before we talk about adding stuff like Uber and Lyft.”

Brian Hughes, general manager of Uber Hawaii, said his company’s internal regulations are already more stringent than Honolulu’s because Uber drivers are required to have nationwide criminal background checks going back seven years, and there is zero tolerance for driving under the influence and violent crimes.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” Hughes said.

According to Uber, 9.5 percent of Honolulu cabdrivers who apply to drive for the company don’t pass the background screening.

But Dave Sutton, spokesman for Who’s Driving You, an initiative of the national nonprofit Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, said the screening done by ride-hailing companies isn’t foolproof. He noted that in addition to being involved in serious traffic accidents, Uber drivers outside of Hawaii have been accused of committing crimes such as assault, sexual assault, rape, child molestation, kidnapping and robbery against passengers.

Sutton said California is an example in the industry of best vetting practices.

In that state most jurisdictions conduct background checks for cabdrivers using Live Scan, the California Department of Justice’s automated service for criminal checks, according to Fairfield Police Capt. Randy Fenn. Background checks for cabdrivers in that state typically go back to when a person turned 18.

“They have to come in and submit their fingerprints every year as part of the process,” Fenn said. “The check goes through the California Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation databases. Most states report their criminal history to the FBI, so if you have a situation where an applicant is clear in California but they have been convicted in Nevada or Arizona, we’ll find out about it.”

The service costs $42 per applicant, Fenn said, and unlike in Hawaii, drug testing also is required. Although only convictions show up on the background check, Fairfield has an electronic taxi driver database that alerts police whenever one of the city’s taxi drivers is charged with a crime. The police chief also has the ability to suspend or revoke a license even without a conviction.
In Honolulu, taxi authorities are notified of convictions only when applicants renew their licenses and police run a state background check every two years. Fingerprinting is not used.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, vice chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said lawmakers need to consider taxi rules when creating a new regulatory environment for ride-hailing companies.
“It’s important to take care of this instead of kicking the can down the road,” Gabbard said. Ride hailing “needs to be regulated. We need to get the stakeholders, the companies, taxi drivers and insurance companies to come up with a compromise. It may not be what everyone wants, but I can live with that.”

State Sen. Will Espero of the Senate consumer protection committee said the taxi complaint hotline, which leads to the abandoned vehicles division and isn’t answered after hours, needs to be fixed, along with other problems.

“The way it is, people will think they are lost or get frustrated. It looks like there are a lot of areas that need to be looked at and discussed and figured out,” he said.
Espero suggested a task force be established to consider how best to regulate taxis and ride-hailing companies.

“Maybe we need to have some type of oversight board or commission to regulate all of these related transportation industries where the common denominator is getting people from point A to point B,” Espero said. “Whatever standards and requirements that are decided for one should be the same or similar to the other.”

The airport taxi concession, which is managed by the state Department of Transportation’s Airports Division, is another area where lawmakers say improvements can be made. The current contract, which hasn’t been put up for bid in more than a decade, expires in 2017.

Gabbard and Espero said the contract and procedures need to be examined.

“Let’s follow the rules,” Gabbard said, “and let’s make sure that the reason that we are continuing to do something isn’t simply because that’s just the way that’s it always been done. That kind of thinking — it drives me nuts.”