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Are D.C. Cabbies Following The Rules? Fake Passengers Take Taxis for a Test-Drive

Wednesday, January 08, 2014 - 03:04 PM

D.C. taxi (Martin Di Caro/WAMU)

D.C.'s Taxicab Commission placed undercover "test passengers" in cabs to find drivers who are violating a slate of new regulations, including mandatory credit card acceptance.

"The message we are sending to drivers is that when they applied and received their license from the commission, they did so agreeing to adhere to the rules and regulations," said Ron Linton, the chairman of the commission, which regulates the District’s fleet of approximately 6,700 cabs. "And we expect they will meet that commitment."

The commission hired ten people—men and women of different races—to hail cabs over a two-week period in all eight wards in late December. Ninety-one cabs were randomly hailed and the trips took test passengers to all parts of D.C. The test determined 94% of the hailed taxis had working credit card readers.

"It was a random study but I think it is representative of what is going on in the marketplace. I think it is an indication that most of the taxis have functioning credit card machines in them," said commission spokesman Neville Waters. Installation companies report 6,693 D.C. taxis have approved credit card systems in their back seats.

The rollout of mandatory credit card acceptance was very bumpy. Technical glitches, contract disputes, confusion, and even defiance on the part of a few drivers combined to produce weeks of complaints by drivers and customers that credit card readers were not working, or that fare payments were showing up late—or not at all.

"We have not had anywhere near the complaints both from riders or cabbies that we were getting from the first [week] or two after installations began," Linton said.

The undercover “test passengers” found at least one problem, however, in 43 of the 91 taxis that were hailed in the field test. The most common penalty (22 infractions) was failure by the driver to display his photo ID. Six drivers said their credit card machines were not working.

Eight drivers accepted payments with an unapproved system, including the mobile card reader Square. Square remains popular with cabbies, although its use in taxis is now illegal in D.C. because it does not collect the commission’s $.25 surcharge.

Eight “test passengers” were denied a ride, which is termed ‘failure to haul’ in regulatory parlance. While the undercover riders were of different ethnicities, the commission said in a press release that the problem of drivers refusing to pick up passengers “predominantly affects African-American males and is a violation that will not be tolerated.”

The D.C. Taxicab Commission will call in each driver for a hearing to adjudicate their alleged infractions. Fines range from $100 to $1,000.

Cabbies interviewed as they waited to pick up passengers in the taxi line at Union Station had mixed feelings about the commission’s new tactic. While some said they did not mind, one cabbie said he felt like the commission crossed a line.

"We are hard working people. We don't deserve to be spied [upon]," he said.

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