State and city officials are calling for a major overhaul of taxicab regulations, including more robust background checks and drug testing for drivers, creating a database to track arrests and revisiting the Honolulu Airport contract.
“We made the rules, so we can change them,” said state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Meanwhile, the city Thursday conducted its first spot inspection of taxicabs since 2013. Inspectors gathered at Diamond Head Crater to check permits, paperwork and safety compliance of drivers at the taxi stand, according to city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke.
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The push for change comes after the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published a report earlier this week highlighting problems in the oversight of taxis. The newspaper found that most taxi records were not computerized, and the city had little leeway to suspend or revoke permits even when serious complaints were lodged.
The city recently issued a permit to driver Enio Tablas, who is awaiting trial on charges of sexual assault against female passengers in two separate incidents last year. Since 2006 Tablas has been convicted of theft, driving with a suspended or revoked license due to DUI, failure to take a chemical test and numerous traffic violations in California and Hawaii.
Taxi applicants can be denied permits if they have been convicted of certain offenses, such as sex crimes, other violent crimes, some drug offenses, driving under the influence, careless driving and speeding. Current rules, which were in place before computerized criminal record checks became widely available to the general public, require the Honolulu Police Department to conduct a background check of applicants. The checks are for Hawaii convictions only, and they go back only two years.
‘Gaps’ in system
City Customer Services Director Sheri Kajiwara, whose department oversees metered taxis, said she was powerless to deny Tablas’ permit, since he has not been convicted of a disqualifying crime in Hawaii within the last two years.
“I think the rules need to be amended to reflect the 21st century,” said Inouye (D, Kaupulehu-Waimea-North Hilo), who also serves on a transportation committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State rules also require police to run a fingerprint check, and while Kajiwara said the Customer Services Department does fingerprint applicants, police spokeswoman Michelle Yu said those fingerprints are not used when conducting the background checks.
“If we are taking fingerprints, they should be used in the backgrounding,” said Honolulu City Council Floor Leader Ron Menor. “Otherwise, why are we doing it?” he said.
Inouye and Menor both disagree with the decision to issue Tablas a taxi permit. Under current rules there are few cases where the city has discretion to suspend or revoke a taxi license. Even if a driver were recently released from prison after serving time for a serious crime, the city wouldn’t be able to deny a taxi license unless the conviction was within the two-year time frame.
“Clearly, there are gaps in the regulatory system with respect to taxi drivers that need to be addressed by the city,” Menor said. “The city needs to make safety of passengers a higher priority.”
Menor said he supports putting taxi driver information into a computerized database with a mechanism for frequent, maybe even monthly updates on criminal background and traffic abstracts. He wants to add a drug-testing requirement and believes taxi drivers should undergo frequent rechecks.
Additionally, Menor wants the city to consider suspending drivers who have been charged with serious crimes.
“The city has the authority to issue the certificate, so it would be within the city’s prerogative to suspend the license,” he said. “The city needs to give greater weight to protecting the public and passengers than the interest of the driver.”
Inouye plans to introduce legislation updating the Public Passenger Vehicle Regulation, an ordinance she said has not been scrutinized since 1995. She also wants to better define the portion of the Hawaii Administrative Rules that gave the city responsibility for taxi oversight. And, she’s going to urge city lawmakers and administrators to update their taxi rules. In addition to more comprehensive criminal, medical and traffic abstract checks, Inouye wants to set age limits for taxis. She’s also got a call in to the Hawaii Tourism Authority to ask its staff to help develop a cultural training program for drivers.
“We gave the city and county authority to do the vehicle licensing and driver permitting. We designate what they should be doing,” she said.”Currently I’m not satisfied.”
On behalf of a taxi industry working group, Kajiwara recommended in February that the City Council broaden criminal background checks to include nationwide convictions over a 10-year period. Council member Joey Manahan, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said his group has not acted on this recommendation because it does not want to pass new taxi industry rules while state lawmakers are considering regulating ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, which passengers book using mobile phone apps.
“It’s a parity issue and it’s a multijurisdictional issue,” Manahan said. “We think they should try to resolve as much as possible at the state level, and whatever they can’t resolve should then go back to the county level. We don’t want to move on anything that could change next session that could cause a lot of heartache for a lot of people.”
Politics at play
Manahan also questions why administrators gave Tablas a certificate.
“I think Enio Tablas is something that we should look at in terms of what things the department should have done within the existing rules. This is a very serious public safety concern,” he said. “I don’t want him driving. I take a cab all the time when I am here, and so does my wife and family. It’s a concern for everyone and it’s scary.”
Inouye said she also wants to examine the airport taxi concession agreement and change the state exemption that has allowed the Airports Division to keep the same taxi dispatcher, AMPCO Express, for more than a decade without going out to bid.
“AMPCO Express also has the parking garage. To me, I believe in procurement laws. This is a political situation. When it comes to safety of residents and visitors, it can’t be political,” she said.
Robert Deluze, owner of Robert’s Taxi, said it’s time for lawmakers to fix the taxi system.
“Taxi control is the biggest joke that I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve been dealing with these people for 25 years, and there’s never been one change,” Deluze said. Deluze said he is among taxi industry members who support better background checks and enforcement. He said some of his drivers have passed the city vetting and failed the stricter background checks required by the military for on-base access.
“I discovered one driver had eight previous sexual assaults. Five minutes later he was gone. I told him to turn in his taxi dome and his company stickers,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of taxi drivers are really, really good people. But there’s that 5 to 10 percent that might make us look bad. We need to weed them out.”