Who's behind the wheel? - Page 3

Taxi permits, which give the holder a nice income, are only for active drivers. So what happens when a permit holder gets disabled?
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K (although the panel allows temporary reprieves for people who are injured but could return to driving).

Michael Kwok, a former commission staffer who oversaw disability requests, said such a policy allows the permit waiting line to move faster.

Allowing a permanently disabled person to retain his or her permit is "not fair to the public," said Kwok, who uses a wheelchair. "It's case by case."

The result is an enforcement process that can be tricky, to say the least.

On Aug. 17, 2004, for example, a physician wrote to the commission arguing that a disabled driver who was "suffering from failing eyesight and dizziness" and occasional arthritis in his hands should be taken off the road. "Please release him from taxi driving effective immediately for public safety," the doctor wrote. "He is advised not to drive a taxi as soon as possible."

Commission staffer Tristan Bettencourt, who was overseeing ADA compliance at the time, responded by reducing the driver's yearly driving requirement to 400 hours, or 78 four-hour shifts, over the next year.

That could have left an unsafe driver on the road, Myles said.

"I find this reprehensible," he told us. "In most medical-injury suits, evidence of medical condition can only be given by qualified health care professionals."

Bettencourt, who left his job last year, said the Taxicab Commission shouldn't be deciding whether someone is fit to drive or not. "We didn't give out driver's licenses," he told us. "If you hold a driver's license, someone from the Department of Motor Vehicles has certified you."

According to Jan Mendoza, a public information officer at the DMV, a license needs to be renewed every five years — a process that can take place online if a person has a clean record. People over the age of 70, however, have to visit the office in person to take both a vision and a driving test.

Taxi drivers should not have any guarantee of lifetime entitlement, Bettencourt said. He added that the lack of a safety net for people who lose their means of employment is not something a San Francisco taxi regulator can solve; it's a national problem.

EXIT STRATEGY?

Thomas George-Williams, who chairs the United Taxicab Workers, looks at the issue from the perspective of drivers who don't have permits — the ones he considers second-class citizens in a two-tier system.

All San Francisco cab drivers are effectively independent contractors who are responsible for their own disability and retirement funds. And the drivers who don't have permits get no benefits from the system at all.

Medallion holders "use the income of their medallions for disability insurance," George-Williams told us. "We need an exit strategy for all drivers, including medallion holders, and we don't have that."

Charles Rathbone, a driver for 30 years and a medallion holder for 10, points to the harsh truth: there's a key difference between the two cabbie classifications. "For drivers without medallions, there's nothing to revoke," he told us.

Rathbone, a member of the Medallion Holders Association, spoke at the Taxicab Commission meeting July 13 to lay out two steps he felt the city should take before revoking a permit. He asked for two weeks' advance warning and an appeals process.

"When I become disabled, I don't want my only exit strategy to be a kick in the ass from the taxi commission," Rathbone later told us.

His speech was spurred by the June suicide of Lindsey Welcome, a 61-year-old medallion holder of 10 years who had not driven for seven of those years due to severe muscular dystrophy.

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