Inspector questions cab safety

The City’s taxicabs are not as safe as they used to be, the head safety inspector of San Francisco cabs says, because of a new law that lets older taxi models stay on the streets longer.

Dan Borg, the head mechanic of the San Francisco International Airport ground transportation unit, which annually inspects all cabs in service, delivered a powerful testimony to the Taxicab Commission last week, calling into question a newly adopted rule that allows taxis to remain in service for eight model years, whereas in the past cabs could only remain in service for four years.

Borg said older cars have outdated safety equipment and are more likely to have cracks in the floor, “metal fatigue” and faulty steering.

“I have a 4-year-old grandson and I know if it’s a cold night and one of these old cars pulls up for me I’m going to let it pass until a newer one comes,” Borg said.

The new rule, adopted in January, still caps a taxi out at 350,000 miles and allows a cab into service only if it has less than 60,000 miles.

“In past years, the oldest cab on the streets would be 2003. But with the eight-year rule passing, we now have 1999 cabs out on the streets,” Borg said.

Of the 1,656 cabs, including spares, that came through inspections this year, “628 — had not the ruling not been changed — would have been out of service,” Borg said. “That’s a lot of vehicles that are out there now that wouldn’t have been out in the past.”

There are 1,381 cabs in service in S. F., and a taxi drives an average of 80,000 miles a year, according to Taxicab Commission Chairman Paul Gillespie. A cab is sometimes driven for as many as 20 hours a day, he said.

“These cars were designed as passenger cars. These are not commercial vehicles. We’ve taken them to 350,000-mile limits. Mom and pop get rid of them at 150,000 miles if they got a good life out of them,” Borg said.

The new regulation has also created other problems, according to Borg. Some companies “are parking the good cab because it’s got eight years and racking up the high miles on the other ones because the calendar’s about to get them,” Borg said. The older cabs are coming into inspections with 100,000 to 110,000 miles registered in just one year of service, he said.

Cabs with less than 200,000 miles must undergo inspections once a year, while those with more than 200,000 miles require inspections twice a year.

Borg acknowledged that the inspections are not as rigorous as they could be, saying they do not road test the cabs or put them up on a lift. “Now they are passing these inspections because I can’t get under there and check the metallurgy of this frame or tell you if this floor is buckled or cracked. We don’t have to time to do that in our inspections,” Borg said.

Borg said he sees signs of odometer tampering since the four-year limit was lifted, the use of more used cars and the purchase of salvaged cars “that insurance companies have deemed not repairable for private passengers.”

Concerns prompt no official action

Recent concerns over the safety of older cabs on San Francisco streets voiced by The City’s head safety inspector were not enough to prompt city officials to take immediate action.

The Taxicab Commission, which oversees the taxi industry, said the new regulation allowing cabs to stay on the streets for eight model years — as opposed to four — does not pose an apparent safety risk to passengers or drivers.

Heidi Machen, executive director of the Taxicab Commission, said that because of the required inspections, she “trusts the taxis out there are mechanically safe.” She said the conditions of the oldest taxis allowed on the road by law, 1999 models, should not alarm anyone.

Michael Spain, a driver with Yellow Cab, said there are many variables that come into play in determining whether a cab is a safe ride. “Whether it can pass inspections, that should be the bar, the standard,” Spain said.

Some insiders say the smaller cab companies are more likely to have cabs in poor condition.

“The problem might be the small companies that don’t service the cars as well,” said Yellow Cab’s assistant manager, Jim Gillespie. “Bigger companies like Luxor, DeSoto and Yellow Cab, I know they service the cars on a regular basis and they aren’t putting dangerous cabs out there.”

The owner of Metro Cab, Richard Hybels, said the new regulation keeps his operating costs “down a little bit,” and said Borg’s safety concerns were unfounded. “I would like Dan Borg to show me even one accident that was the result of mechanical failure,” Hybels said.

Taxicab Commission Chairman Paul Gillespie said the cabs are safe. “I ride in cabs all the time. I think the vehicles are in pretty good shape.”

After hearing Borg’s Dec. 12 testimony, Taxicab Commissioner Malcolm Heinicke said: “I don’t hear the sky is falling message that we need to pull these cars back right away.”

Heinicke proposed collecting data to determine if there is any correlation between old, used or salvaged cabs on the streets and cab accidents.

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