San Diego cabbies cry foul over body odour test
A cab driver waits near his car in line at a depot near the airport Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Elliot Spagat, The Associated Press
Published Friday, September 12, 2014 6:28AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 12, 2014 12:16PM EDT
SAN DIEGO -- Body odour is among 52 criteria that officials at San Diego International Airport use to judge taxi drivers. Taxi drivers say that smacks of prejudice and discrimination.
For years, inspectors with the San Diego Regional Airport Authority run down their checklist for each cabbie -- proof of insurance, functioning windshield wipers, adequate tire treads, good brakes. Drivers are graded pass, fail or needs fixing.
Anyone who flunks the smell test is told to change before picking up another customer.
Leaders of the United Taxi Workers of San Diego union say the litmus perpetuates a stereotype that predominantly foreign-born taxi drivers smell bad. A 2013 survey of 331 drivers by San Diego State University and Center on Policy Initiatives found 94 per cent were immigrants and 65 per cent were from East Africa.
Drivers wonder how inspectors determine who reeks. Driver Abel Seifu, 36, from Ethiopia, suspects they sniff inconspicuously during friendly conversations in the staging area. Airport authority spokeswoman Rebecca Bloomfield said there is "no standard process" to testing.
Others drivers question how inspectors distinguish between them and their cars. The checklist has a separate item for a vehicle's "foul interior odours," which Bloomfield says may include gasoline, vomit or mildew.
"If they want to bring their smell detector, they can use it to test the customers and the drivers," said driver Negus Gebrenarian, 39, from Ethiopia. He, like other drivers, said the stench is just as likely to come from the back seat as it is from the front.
The airport authority says it is enforcing a policy of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, which regulates taxis throughout the region, that prohibits foul-smelling drivers and promotes regular bathing. It also says the practice is about satisfying customers.
"Taxi drivers are often the first impression that travellers receive when arriving into San Diego and we want to encourage a positive experience," Bloomfield said. Only about three drivers fail to get a passing grade each year, she said.
Inspectors have been smelling drivers for years. There was no controversy until a union employee waded through a 568-page airport board agenda and noticed the checklist, which had been approved in July for revisions unrelated to the body odour test. KPBS reported on the practice last week.
San Diego's policy appears to be unusually explicit about sniffing out smelly cabbies. Chicago requires that drivers be "clean and neat in their appearance." New York City's wording is similarly broad.
Seattle long evaluated cabbies for body odour associated with infrequent bathing and not washing clothes but dropped that test last month for a more general requirement on cleanliness.
"The industry didn't like it and they felt that we were kind of overstepping: Why are we dictating to them? We don't tell city employees that you've got to shower more often," said Denise Movius, Seattle's deputy director of finance and administrative services.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the 18,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said her face reddened with anger and dismay when she learned about the San Diego practice. She suggested the airport leave it to customers to complain about body odour.
"What a dehumanizing way to treat your workers," she said.
Travellers arriving in San Diego on Wednesday were mixed.
Sue Beneventi, 70, thinks cabbies are getting picked on.
"If you're going to say cab drivers, shouldn't you also say waitresses and anyone else who deals with the public?" she said after returning from San Antonio.
Daniel Johnson, an 18-year-old Marine who came from Flint, Michigan, said it's fair to grade on body odour, especially considering the $70 fare to get to his base. He has felt trapped in smelly cabs in other cities.
"The smell puts a sour expression on your face and you're thinking I just don't want to be in here," he said.