Brookline tightens safety tests for cabs
Inspections uncover spike in violations
Cabs from Brookline’s three biggest taxi companies will be subject to random inspections starting next month, after routine checks by the town found serious safety problems in dozens of vehicles - a surge over last spring.
All of the issues, ranging from burned-out headlamps to faulty ball joints, were corrected and the taxis reinspected on the day the defects were found, a requirement of the town’s inspection program. Representatives of the cab companies say their cars are safe, particularly because Brookline performs safety inspections twice a year, on top of the state’s annual inspection.
Normally, the town inspections find fewer than 20 percent of taxis from any one company to have safety issues, officials said.
This spring, 38 of the 142 cabs owned by three of the four largest operators in Brookline were found with one or more code 4 - the most serious - violations, primarily involving suspensions, brakes, and light bulbs. Another 33 had racked up a total of 51 code 3 violations, which don’t affect passenger safety or comfort. The results in both categories were a substantial increase from spring 2010, when the inspections found 12 code 4 violations and 27 code 3 infractions.
Bay State Taxi, which operates 77 cabs in town, had the highest number - 34 - of code 4 violations, and the highest percentage of vehicles cited this spring, with the 27 cabs representing 35 percent of its fleet. It was followed by Red Cab, with 7 of its 40 cabs, or 17 percent, found to have code 4 infractions, and Eagle Cab, with 4 of 25, or 16 percent.
“The increase in Red Cab and Eagle was not acceptable, but Bay State’s numbers were outrageous,’’ said Michael Sandman, chairman of the town’s Transportation Board, which issues the annual taxi licenses.
The fourth company, Town Taxi, with 20 cabs, had just three - 15 percent - cited for code 4 problems in May, up from two the previous spring.
Sandman said the Transportation Department’s random inspections will target the companies with more problem cabs, and probably pull in the oldest vehicles first. The companies will get a day’s notice of which cabs need to appear for inspection, so drivers can arrange an alternate ride for their shift.
“We don’t wave down the driver to pull in for an inspection - that’s not fair,’’ Sandman said. “But next round, if the inspections show no improvement, we might do true spot inspections.’’
Bay State Taxi’s chief executive, Joe Bethany, acknowledged the company had a particularly bad inspection this spring.
“We have our good years and our bad years, but Murphy’s law happened this year,’’ he said. He also reiterated that his company’s cabs are safe, and said taxi clients can be reassured by the town’s oversight system.
“Brookline’s cab inspections are the toughest, bar none, in the country,’’ Bethany said. “Any car that goes down there will fail. School buses do not get this level of inspection.’’
Bethany said defective parts played a role in the failures.
“I was livid when I heard what happened, and I laid into my mechanics,’’ he said. But, he said, they told him every cab had been checked and repaired before going for inspection. The parts, he said, especially bulbs (in brake lamps, high beams, and registration-plate lights) and ball joints, failed en route to the test site.
“The town garage keeps each cab half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, and checks every spring, screw, line, and bumper,’’ Bethany said. “I could take my car a half hour before inspections to my garage, and all it needs to do is hit a pothole and I’d have a code 4 violation.’’
Matt Mazotta, director of operations at Red Cab, agreed that the town’s inspections are “far more stringent’’ than in other communities.
“We had some bad luck in this inspection,’’ he said. “Our staff is still fairly new in this process and we are learning what they are looking for, but the big takeaway is that the system works.’’
Mazotta said he doubts town officials would have been as outraged if the failure rates had been at 20 percent or lower.
Calls to Eagle Cab’s owners for a comment were unsuccessful.
Besides ordering the random checks, which will continue until the November inspections are held, Sandman said, his board decided to reverse a softening of its policy on the age of cabs that can operate in town.
He said the Transportation Board last winter suspended its rule that taxis more than six years old had to be replaced, based on a request by one of the companies.
“Town Taxi asked us to allow older cars on the road,’’ he said, because starting next year the town may require newer or even brand-new vehicles as part of a switch to a medallion system for issuing operating permits.
Brookline decided to make the change to generate revenue; medallions, unlike licenses, can be resold, and are often more valuable to cab companies.
Sandman said the request to ease the replacement schedule seemed reasonable last winter.
But after this spring’s inspection results, the board reinstated the rule, and any 2004 models will have to be replaced by November; Bay State is already outfitting replacements for its 17 cabs of that vintage.
Bethany said he supports the town’s switch to medallions, because it will take some of the politics out of licensing. He said this year’s public shaming of the town’s taxi operators was an example of such politics.
“I want them to inspect,’’ he said. “But I don’t want it public. Why they decided to trash the taxi business this year, I don’t know. I was brought up never to do that.’’
In the meantime, Sandman said, Brookline taxi customers should not enter a cab they feel is not clean or air-conditioned or that looks unsafe.
He said cabs operated by independent drivers - including affiliates of Bay State and Red Cab - had fared better than the three biggest companies this spring.