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CHP inspections revealed some Chariot drivers drove without proper licenses

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Chariot was ordered to cease operations last Wednesday. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Regulators ordered private bus service Chariot to cease operations in California last Wednesday. Now, records obtained by the San Francisco Examiner reveal why.

On three separate California Highway Patrol inspections, at least seven Chariot drivers were found to be driving without Class B licenses, which certify them to drive buses, according to inspection documents obtained by the Examiner in a public records request.

SEE RELATED: Regulators order Chariot to halt service in California due to safety concerns

CHP inspectors traditionally review a sample of all vehicles, leaving open the possibility of more drivers without proper licenses. Chariot did not respond to requests for comment.

CHP spokesperson Sgt. Rob Nacke said those inspections revealed some of Chariot’s drivers were driving with Class C licenses instead of Commercial Class B licenses — a violation of California law.

“We trust you are aware of the seriousness of this situation and will take immediate action to correct the deficiencies,” CHP Capt. L. M. Bishop wrote to Chariot CEO Ali Vahabzadeh in an Aug. 27 letter obtained by the Examiner.

The letter outlines meetings between the CHP and Chariot where they were warned non-compliance would result in the California Public Utilities Commission suspending Chariot’s authority to operate.

Though the distinction in licenses may seem minor, the Teamsters union, which recently organized Chariot’s 215 Bay Area drivers, said the expertise is important.

“We are deadly serious about those laws,” said Doug Bloch, political director with Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents thousands of Teamsters statewide.

Chariot, a jitney service that’s accessible by smartphone app, falls under regulatory oversight by the CPUC and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The SFMTA passed new regulations for Chariot last Tuesday, which requires wheelchair accessibility and data reporting for its 14-passenger vans.

“Our board voted to establish new local requirements to ensure that current and future private transit services operate in a way that is safe,” SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said.

Those new regulations take effect in November.

Last Thursday, however, Chariot abruptly ceased operations, leaving its 3,000 to 4,000 customers in San Francisco stranded — all for want of licenses.

Commercial Class B licenses show training has been attained in driving vehicles more than 26,000 pounds, or a three-axle vehicle weighing over 6,000 pounds, farm labor vehicles, or — crucially in this case — buses.

A Class C license is the one most everyday commuters carry in their wallets, allowing drivers behind the wheels of sedans and similar sized vehicles.

The CHP inspections of Chariot’s vehicles on the road in Napa in October 2016, as well as inspections of Chariot’s 95 Minna St. bus yard in March and August 2017, all found violations, according to inspection records obtained by the Examiner.

CHP inspected 20 vehicles and found one violation in 2016, according to an inspection document, and gave Chariot an “unsatisfactory rating.”

In the March inspection, the CHP found two violations out of 20 inspections.

In August, however, the CHP found its most drivers without licenses to date, as five of the drivers inspected were without Class B licenses, according to inspection documents.

Chariot did not ask for reviews of the CHP inspections.

When the Teamsters organized Chariot’s drivers in May, “this is something we found out,” Bloch said, of the need for Chariot’s drivers to attain Class B licenses. The Teamsters organized a license training program in San Francisco that operates Monday through Thursdays.

“The very first order of business for the union after we organized the workers was to educate them with Class B licenses,” Bloch said. “We did that before we organized the contract.”

Chariot paid for the training courses, Bloch said.

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