Categorized | Express Editorials

Protecting Riders 07/05/12

Posted on 13 July 2012

While everyone loves the laid back lifestyle on the East End which stands in such marked contrast to life in the hectic city, it’s not always a good thing.

Take, for example, the realm of hired cars on the East End — we’re talking taxis and limos here — which, when you jump in one at a train station or call for a ride late at night, you rarely know for sure what, or who, you’re dealing with. Because there’s no regulation, it’s possible that you may be riding in a car operated by some fly-by-night outfit that isn’t even based on the East End.

In recent months, Suffolk County Legislators have been taking the initial steps to create a Taxi and Limousine Commission. They should be commended for this — such a body will protect businesses and consumers by regulating the various cars for hire on the East End. This legislation is much needed and has been for years, especially to protect our East End drivers, since Nassau County formed its own TLC which bars drivers from picking up or dropping off customers anywhere in Nassau without a Nassau license.

But with no Suffolk TLC, operators from Nassau County and beyond have been free to swoop up whatever fares they like here with absolutely no oversight or repercussions.

Perhaps the bigger issue for many on the East End, however, is the nature of taxi fares and the fact that rates aren’t published. Getting around without a car is practically impossible here, and often it’s the poor and elderly who most often must resort to taking cabs. Knowing what the rates are — and that they’ll be consistent from one company to another — is important in helping people who rely on cabs to survive out here.

The problem is this: Legislators working on the issue are planning to start by licensing limousine services, which typically make longer trips for things like airport transfers or vineyard tours. This is a business that needs to be regulated, and hopefully the creation of a TLC will allow for a reciprocal agreement with Nassau County’s TLC, which will let Suffolk County drivers drop passengers off at places like Jones Beach without paying hefty fines or having their vehicles impounded.

But the fact that legislators are planning to wait to regulate taxi services on the East End is worrisome, given it is an industry that desperately needs regulation. Currently, cabs are not required to stick to a certain fare schedule, meaning that any cab company can essentially charge you whatever they want, no matter the length of the trip. When the Express called three different cab companies asking for the fare from The American Hotel to the Bridgehampton train station, we got three different prices — and though the variation in price was not enormous, there was variation nonetheless. We worry that an unscrupulous driver could easily charge whatever he likes when called to pick up a group of inebriated bar patrons who are trying to do the responsible thing by not driving. If the cost is too high, those people just might choose to take their chances next time by driving themselves.

In New York City, a Taxi Rider’s Bill of Rights is visible in the back seat of every yellow cab. Riders know the rates and cabs must stick to them. Suffolk County would benefit from something similar, both in principle and in practice.

By moving more swiftly to license cabs, Suffolk County would also make it possible for consumers to report which companies are violating the terms of their licenses. Currently, if you call a cab for noon and it doesn’t show up at your door until 12:45, you have no recourse — you simply have to wait it out, or try to find another ride. When many summer residents and visitors rely on cabs to make Jitneys and trains, this is unacceptable.

There are also safety benefits associated with the creation of a TLC. Right now, taxis and limousines are not required to undergo regular safety checks. This is a recipe for disaster. A TLC would also run background checks on drivers. While it is in the self-interest of company owners to keep their cars safe — more accidents mean higher insurance costs — it is vital that consumers know that more than the free market is protecting them.

While there are plenty of upstanding cab and limousine operators in the Hamptons, there is nothing to stop business owners from being unscrupulous at the expense of customers. And there’s nothing stopping those from outside the area coming here to do just that.

We support the creation of the Suffolk County TLC, and urge county officials to swiftly regulate both limousines and taxis.

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