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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight

Last Toot for Aging Taxis?

O.C. overseer of cabs proposes banning vehicles older than 10 by March. Small firms would face a big financial hit. Some question the need for pending rules.

October 30, 2000|RENEE MOILANEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The agency regulating taxicabs in Orange County is cracking down on companies that may put passengers and other drivers at risk with cars well past their mechanical prime.

A proposal by the Orange County Taxi Administration Program would nudge older, more trouble-prone taxis off the road by limiting vehicle age to 10 years.

But owners of small cab companies say their wallets will take a big hit with the new regulations. Moreover, some taxi officials and auto experts question whether the rules really ensure greater protection for passengers and other drivers.

"When you have a car that's older than 10 years and if the condition is good, it should not be necessary to be replaced," said Savvas Roditis, vice president of Anaheim-based South Coast Taxi. "They have buses more than 10 years old running around the city, but then they regulate taxis."

The changes should put Orange County in line with other counties and cities that have long had such consumer protections, said Allan Jagger, manager of the county's taxi program.

"All of these are designed just to protect the public," Jagger said. "They're not to put people out of business or to hurt business."

Taxi companies would have until March 2001 to comply with the new rule, which still must be approved by the county's 32 cities before taking effect.

Already, Roditis' company has replaced 30 old cars in his 40-cab fleet since learning about the new age limit last year. The switch has cost him more than $200,000 at car auctions and he's not done yet. About four of his company's cabs are more than 10 years old and must be replaced.

Though the county already requires yearly inspections of all cabs, the new 10-year age limit takes the guesswork out of judging safety in the high-mileage cars, Jagger said.

About 52 of the 794 taxicabs licensed in the county are more than 10 years old, according to figures compiled in April. At that age and packing on 20,000 to 60,000 miles a year in heavy traffic, taxis can start having problems, auto experts and taxi officials agreed.

"Taxis go through so much abuse," said Bill Gray, spokesman for Santa Ana-based A Taxi Cab, whose oldest cab is 4 years old. "We've always espoused the idea that the newer the car, the more safe it is for the passenger."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not keep records on mechanical hazards in older cars. Often, people do not complain about problems in aging vehicles because they see those problems as a given, a spokesperson said.

Auto experts say that once a car reaches 10 years old, valves, rings

and brake linings begin to wear. Hoses leak, and the radiator may need to be replaced, said Jeffrey Hiller, a 17-year auto technician at Mission Viejo Motors Inc.

But these glitches do not mean a car is unsafe, Hiller pointed out. "It's the maintenance," he said. "As long as people are looking at it, you can have a 20-year-old car that's safer than a 4-year-old car."

Mary Lunneborg from Palo Alto said safety is the last thing on her mind when she hails a taxi. "I assume it's going to be safe," Lunneborg said as she piled luggage into a cab at John Wayne Airport.

For some passengers, a taxi's age is less important than its appearance. "I was once in a really gross taxi in [Los Angeles], but it got me to my hotel, so it was fine," Lunneborg said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Cab sense

* At night, call for a cab rather than hail one from a curb and shop around for the company offering the best service. Your order will be monitored by the taxi company if you phone, and problems can be more easily reported.

* Make sure your driver has a picture identification and license.

* Avoid cabs in which the driver pulls next to you and aggressively tries to get you into the car.

* Avoid unlicensed "gypsy" cabs.

* Taxicab company business permits are issued after a background investigation of company, review of vehicle insurance, review of company business documents and payment of applicable fees.

* Taxicab driver permits are issued after a criminal background and DMV investigation,annual drug and alcohol test and payment of applicable fees.

* Taxicab vehicle permits are issued after a vehicle inspection, proof of insurance and vehicle ownership and payment of applicable fees.

* Questions: Call Orange County Taxi Administration Program at (949) 857-7202

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