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Catching illegal cab drivers is difficult, official says
Fiesta Cab Co. owner Jose Luis Diaz prepares to pick up a fare from his company’s office on Atlanta Highway.

Many of Gainesville’s cabs boast attention-grabbing names and colors, such as the green and red cabs of Fiesta Cab Co. owned by Jose Luis Diaz.

The taxis operating illegally tend to be more unassuming, Diaz said.

“These 14-, 15-passenger vans go back and forth. Many people don’t even know what they’re there for,” Diaz said.

Gainesville code requires any taxicab driver who picks up people in the city limits to have a permit. The permits require drivers to submit to criminal background checks, compel the companies to undergo a twice-yearly vehicle inspection by the city marshal’s office and keep a certain amount of liability insurance on all the vehicles.

Diaz said he has seen fewer of the blatant permit violations than the ones he noted in 2009 — vans poaching customers from spots where his cabs frequently served customers, such as poultry plants.

“It doesn’t compare to how it was two, three years ago,” he said. “I see fewer of the vans, maybe two or three, and not as often.”

Catching illegal cab drivers in the act can be difficult, City Marshal Debbie Jones said, since many operate under the radar in regular cars. Unpermitted cab operations have been in the city since Jones started working for the marshal’s office more than 11 years ago.

“We have no way of knowing. It’s just not easy to identify,” she said. “We get lucky every once (in) awhile and someone is able to give me a name and number; that’s how I made those four or five arrests in November 2011. I had finally gotten the information I needed to get the illegal drivers.”

When Jones does catch drivers operating cabs illegally, the fine can range from $500 to $1,000.

She outlined the possible risk factors for customers.

“First thing, the cars have not been inspected. We don’t know if they’re safe — the brakes, the lights, if they have current insurance. Some drivers may not even have a driver’s license,” Jones said. “If there’s an accident and no insurance, that person may be out of work for weeks or months and have no monetary recourse.”

Diaz noted the thoroughness of the application process.

“The application process takes about 10 days. Police check your whole driving record for things like speeding and DUI,” he said.

Drivers who have a history of more than five traffic violations in the last five years or have been charged with driving under the influence in the last 10 years are denied a permit.

The city’s taxicab ordinance, passed in 1998, allows for only one taxi per 1,000 residents in the county. The population numbers are to be based on the most current census information, Jones said.

So in spite of the county’s large population gains, there were only 139 permitted cabs in Gainesville and no room for new companies under the ordinance until the 2010 census.

With that census showing a population of more than 179,000, Jones said that there are 179 cabs in the county and about 210 taxi operators.

“We just completed renewing the permits (in) December of 2012, so there will be more added throughout this year, but there will also be several drivers that will quit driving for the taxi companies and we won’t know who has quit until the end of this year,” she said.

And like Diaz’s colorful cabs, a permitted taxi should stand out to riders, Jones said.

“If they’ve got the markings, they’ve got our sticker fixed to it, those are the ones regulated by the city,” she said.