Despite 2004 ordinance, taxi service still all over the road
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Despite 2004 ordinance, taxi service still all over the road
Room for abuse in crowded cab fieldBy Blake Aued
Taxi cab horror stories - everybody's got 'em.
From the tale about the driver who kicked out a fare because he got a call about a more lucrative one, to the yarn about waiting three hours in the rain to catch a ride home from downtown after the bars closed, many people who ride in taxis have at least one story to tell.
The Athens-Clarke County Commission tried to address the problem in March 2004 by passing a new ordinance that required cab companies to provide 24-hour service and employ a dispatcher who would log all calls from a public office.
While police and cab owners say the situation's improved under the new ordinance, some companies and drivers continue to flout the law by refusing fares and routing daytime calls to drivers' cell phones, potentially endangering drivers and customers, and leaving Athenians who don't own a car and can't catch the bus stranded.
A review of records obtained from the Athens-Clarke County Police Department through an open records request turned up 18 violations, alleged violations or complaints in the past year, ranging from disgruntled customers to expired permits.
Dispatchers can deceiveOn four days alone - June 13, Sept. 23, Oct. 1 and Nov. 13 - police cited eight cab owners or employees for not providing daytime service or illegally turning down fares. United Taxi Cab was cited four times, A&A Taxi Cab Service three times and Your Cab once. Another company, Top Dawg Transportation, opened about two months ago and hasn't been cited.
Violations are even more common than what is reported to police or investigated, especially among the independent drivers who contract to use a company's name and dispatching service, said Carly Shockley, a Your Cab driver who's pushed police to step up enforcement.
"They have absolutely no supervision whatsoever," Shockley said. "They can do whatever they want."
Daytime calls to the office are routinely routed to drivers' cell phones, who don't keep a log and therefore leave no record of where they were going and when, in case a robbery or other crime occurs, Shockley said. Meanwhile, decoys are employed to make it look like a dispatcher is present at the office as required by law, she said.
"They actually pay people to sleep in the office during the day to make it look like there's a dispatcher there," she said.
When Laura Lusk, the police department's taxi compliance officer, checks to make sure dispatchers are logging calls during the day, she encounters everything from phones intentionally left off the hook to "dispatchers" who don't appear to speak English, according to police reports.
On one occasion, Lusk visited United Taxi after calls there sounded as if they were being routed to a cell phone. When she arrived at the Martin Luther King Parkway office, co-owner Haisim Elsaleh told her he was the dispatcher that day, but when she called the company's number, the phone in his hand did not ring, according to a police report.
Co-owner Abdulgadir Elbdawe answered the phone, and said he was around back. Lusk walked to the back and didn't see him, and Elbdawe told her he was in the bathroom. Then the phone went dead, and Lusk saw Elbdawe's car pull into the parking lot, according to the report.
Most recently, Lusk visited A&A after a busy signal repeatedly kept her from getting through to the dispatcher. She found the dispatcher watching television with a phone on his lap. He said he was trying to order food, according to a police report.
The next day, Lusk checked the log at United and found that no calls were recorded after 9:46 p.m. the day before, according to a police report. She cited the company.
Still, Assistant Police Chief Alan Brown said the ordinance has improved service. "It's working much better than it did in years past," Brown said. "The taxis operating downtown, they're running much better, and they're in much better shape than they used to be."
Violations are prosecuted by the Athens-Clarke Attorney's office. Owners don't face criminal penalties, but can be fined, and have their licenses suspended or taken away. However, police prefer to enforce the law through warnings and inspections, County Attorney Bill Berryman said.
Several cases are pending in Athens-Clarke Municipal Court, with administrative hearings scheduled for December, Berryman said.
On a recent daytime check of the four cab companies' offices in Athens, three were open and appeared to be manned by an on-site dispatcher who was keeping a current log of the time and destination of fares. At the fourth, United Taxi, Elsaleh said he hadn't received any calls that day, that his daytime driver didn't show up for work, and the dispatcher was filling in.
A challenging marketDuring the day, companies run on a skeleton crew of one to five taxis. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., though, an estimated 10,000 people gather downtown to eat and drink, then crowd near the Arch to catch one of dozens of cabs waiting to fill up. At those times, drivers try to be efficient by making sure everyone in a van is going in the same direction.
"When you've got a full cab, and some people want to go to the eastside, and some people want to go to the westside, you can't accommodate them," Your Cab owner Jack Benton said. "It's one of those things that defies your plans."
That policy, though, can leave some people stranded. For example, Chris Godfrey, an Athens bar owner, said he was once put out by a cab driver who picked up a large group downtown.
Godfrey said he was alone and headed to his Green Acres home late one night, when his cab driver picked up a group at another bar who were going to Five Points. Once they arrived, the driver told Godfrey he wasn't going to the eastside anymore, and dropped him back off downtown. A police officer told Godfrey to catch another cab, but he had to wait several hours, he said.
"For the most part, I can't get a cab to the eastside," he said.
Similar complaints were common among other taxi riders interviewed for this article.
Although Godfrey didn't file a police report about that incident, Lusk said the driver's actions probably were illegal.
"They have to pick them up and take them somewhere, unless there's a legitimate reason," she said.
Those reasons are limited to a passenger acting disorderly or engaging in illegal behavior, another driver coming to make the pickup or the driver being in reasonable fear of his safety, according to the county code.
Companies still can be reluctant to take fares during off hours, and anyone who's not downtown on a weekend night is pretty much out of luck, said Brown, who previous to a recent promotion oversaw taxi compliance as part of his job as head of the criminal investigations division.
"(Cab drivers) always want to go to the bars," he said. "They don't want to pick up the guy who gets off work at the grocery store at 12 a.m."
That's because companies make most of their money during those peak hours, when almost all of the 60 to 70 cabs in Athens are filled with a half-dozen or more fares, mostly students riding downtown from home or from the University of Georgia dormitories and back.
"Unless UGA wants to run buses at night, there's no way for everybody to be safe except take a cab," said one UGA student who called a cab on a recent Saturday to take him downtown from his Five Points house.
During the day, providing service is about a break-even proposition, according to Shockley. But it still helps pay the bills, A&A co-owner Abdelhamed Mohammed said.
"I make all the money at night and at the game times," Mohammed said, while insisting he still would offer daytime service even if he wasn't required to.
"The (rent, phone and electricity) bills are for 24 hours, not 12 hours," he said.
Drivers at risk, tooDrivers and company owners face their own set of perils, as well. Three cab drivers were robbed at gunpoint within a month two years ago. Customers often refuse to pay, and even vandalize or damage the cabs. Two weeks ago, a group of passengers picked up downtown refused to pay a fare, then broke a window in Mohammed's van and ran away, he said. Not only did police never catch the culprits, they told Mohammed to take his cab off the street until the window was fixed, he said.
"I lose my van, I lose my time, I lose my money, I go home," he said.
On such occasions, or when criminals use taxis to flee from the scene, a log can help police close the case by pinpointing when and where the scofflaw fled, Brown said.
The county has long required cab companies to provide service 24 hours a day, with a dispatcher logging the times and destinations of all calls, but commissioners revised the taxi ordinance in March 2004 to tighten restrictions on part-time independent cabs that were often unreliable and didn't log fares through the dispatcher of the company they contracted with, and to add additional insurance and safety requirements.
Carl Jordan, the lone Athens-Clarke commissioner to vote against the ordinance, said he still believes the regulations worsen, rather than solve, the problem. If government would leave them alone, taxi companies and independent drivers could respond to popular demand, he said.
"We shouldn't be in the business of regulating taxis," he said. "We should let the market do that."
There are no plans on the horizon to revisit the ordinance or step up enforcement, Athens-Clarke Mayor Heidi Davison said. While the ordinance is not perfect, Davison said she has no reason to believe it needs revision, or that it isn't being properly enforced. Some violations may be unavoidable, she said.
"We may have some companies who simply refuse to comply with the ordinance," she said. "If staff wasn't following through, I would intervene, but they are."