New ordinance to prohibit some felons from driving cabs

by Jordan Green

Taxi company owners and drivers plan to meet with city of Winston-Salem staff to discuss a draft rewrite of the city’s Vehicles for Hire ordinance on Oct. 8. The revision would put some drivers out of work by prohibiting approval of permits to applicants with some felonies, including murder, assault, robbery, rape and drug offenses, or if their record shows excessive traffic violations over the past three years.

LD White said the new requirements would hurt her family because her roommate, who provides for her and her three children, would be unable to continue driving. Last week, the family was celebrating the birthdays of her 10-year-old twins and her 1-year-old baby, who were all born on Sept. 23. Andy Key, White’s roommate and the family’s current breadwinner, was convicted of felony assault in June, White said. Another strike against him is that he received three or four tickets in one night while driving a vehicle owned by another owner-operator that had a tail light out and problems with its tires.

The rewrite also requires applicants for driver permits to pass a drug test, submit fingerprints for a statewide criminal background check and complete a physical.

Although some ex-offenders are forced by necessity to work as drivers, Salem Taxi owner Kenneth Byrd said the new regulations would make it harder for him to find employees.

“If you put a person through this, with all these obstacles, they may as well get a better job that will pay benefits,” said Byrd, who employs three drivers and leases a varying number of vehicles to independent operators. “It’s a rough job. Not everyone wants to do it. Like with any job there are a few bad apples, but the way the ordinance is set up you can’t be making any money right now because of fuel prices. You’ve got to complete a level-five drug test…. If you’re going to do all that you may as well go ahead be a cop and get a gun.”

While he doesn’t fault the city for rising fuel costs, he said the tough economic times should prompt the city to consider allowing operators to raise fares or reduce insurance coverage instead of increasing regulatory costs.

Byrd also objects to a new requirement forcing owners to hire their own drivers for at least half of their fleet. Likewise, he sees no reason for new rules about drivers’ attire.

“If you set up a system like that, and the company gets a contract do something large, then your hands are tied,” he said. “It’s hard to run fifty percent of your fleet right now when times are so slow, but then when Furniture Market comes around and you need the extra vehicles you’ve got to go through all this bureaucracy.”

Under the proposed revision drivers would also be prohibited from wearing shorts and T-shirts.

“You try riding in a car in the summertime with it being a hundred or so outside, helping the elderly in and out of the car,” Byrd said. “Shorts, heck, it’s almost a necessity. It’s not like we’re talking about cut-off blue jeans here.”

The new attire requirements are simply a matter of upholding community standards, Assistant City Manager Greg Turner said.

“That’s associated with the professionalism that the community wanted,” he said.

As for the provision requiring the owners to operate at least half their fleet with their own drivers, Turner said the city has struggled to keep its regulatory structure up to date with an industry that has developed new layers of subcontracting.

Turner said a flaw in the current ordinance is that it only deals with taxi owners, not drivers.

“The companies have told staff that they can’t regulate the drivers,” he said. “The ordinance only regulates the owners. The expectation was that drivers work as employees of the company. Since that time, there has been a change in the business model of the industry. Drivers might lease a vehicle from the owner or the owner might take a percentage of fares in exchange for providing the vehicle.”

New sections directly regulating the drivers came up because of “concerns from the community about crime in the taxicab industry,” Turner said. “There have been criminal reports that have surfaced in the media associated with the taxicab industry. There’s a perception that people who have been involved with crimes have used taxis to leave the crime scene.”

Turner added that knowingly transporting a passenger away from a crime scene would make a driver an accessory to a crime. If the driver were convicted, the city Public Safety Committee would have grounds to revoke his permit.

Staff has given the city taxicab inspector some flexibility in permitting drivers. The inspector has the discretion to approve permits for drivers whose license was revoked or suspended at the time of application; who have been convicted of some felonies five years previously, including prostitution and public intoxication; or who has been a habitual violator of traffic law or a habitual user of alcohol five years previously.

Turner said the five-year limits are an attempt to balance public safety with the Winston-Salem City Council desire to support efforts by ex-offenders to become productive members of society.

“Council retains that ultimate flexibility,” he said.

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