Fatigue Factor in Taxi Drivers Gets a Hard Look

Proposed new rules loom as soon as this spring

By Andrew Tangel and Austen Hufford
Wall Street Journal

March 6, 2016

A New York City taxi driver who fatally struck a pedestrian in Manhattan in November had been working more than 15 hours.

The driver said he wasn’t tired at the time of the accident, and noted he took breaks while operating the yellow cab, which he had leased for 24 hours.

“It doesn’t mean you are working for 24 hours,” he said in an interview.

Taxi regulators say he didn’t violate a 1990 rule against driving for more than 12 consecutive hours. At the same time, the accident highlights the long workdays professional drivers can spend picking up and dropping off passengers in New York City, raising questions of driver fatigue and safety as Mayor Bill de Blasio aims to reduce traffic deaths.

Prompted in part by the November accident, city taxi regulators are combing through data they collect from cabs and car services as they prepare to propose tighter rules governing how long drivers can be on the road. New regulations could address breaks and time between shifts.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission declined requests for recent trip data that would allow independent analysis of industry work practices, citing driver-privacy concerns. But a Wall Street Journal analysis of city taxi data from 2013, the latest year available, suggests that on an average day 403 yellow taxi drivers were working longer than 15 hours at a time without taking a break of three hours or more. That amounts to 2% of all yellow taxi drivers on the road.

‘Trying to come up with a rule that fits all situations is tough.’

—David Dinges, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school

The 2013 taxi data were posted on the website of open-data enthusiast Chris Whong, who obtained it via a public-records request.

Because the driver in the November crash had taken two breaks of about an hour each, taxi regulators say he didn’t violate a 1990 rule against driving longer than 12 consecutive hours. Initial news reports suggested the driver had worked 16 hours straight.

“That actually didn’t prove to be true, but it did raise the question of, ‘When is enough enough?” Meera Joshi, the taxi commission’s chairwoman, said in an interview.

Taxi regulators are now re-examining the more than 25-year-old rule, which unlike shift rules in other transportation industries doesn’t address breaks or time off between shifts.

The rule has been rarely, if ever, enforced. A taxi commission spokesman said the agency could find no records of any summons for violating the limit.

The rule applies to yellow taxis and green cabs that now serve outer boroughs and parts of upper Manhattan but not car services such as fast-growing Uber. Proposed new rules are expected as soon as this spring.

Fatigue has received attention in other sectors of transportation. Interstate bus drivers aren’t allowed to spend more than 10 hours behind the wheel during a maximum 15-hour workday, with at least eight hours off between shifts, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Operators of New York City subways and buses aren’t supposed to work more than eight hours in a shift, and generally must have eight hours off before going back to work, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman said.

In crafting regulations for taxi and car-service drivers, the city will have to strike a balance between safety and industry needs while also maintaining viable transportation options.

Rules intended to ensure drivers are well rested are generally aimed at preventing the most egregious violations, said David Dinges, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. “Trying to come up with a rule that fits all situations is tough,” he said.

The analysis of New York City taxi data indicates the average yellow-cab driver’s shift in 2013 was 7.3 hours. On the average day that year, 53% of shifts were between 6 and 10 hours.

Drivers who don’t own their own medallion, or city license to operate a yellow taxi, often lease cars for 12 hours but take breaks for meals or errands during slow hours.

For the purposes of analysis, The Wall Street Journal defined a shift as the number of consecutive hours drivers picked up passengers without a work break of three hours or more between pickups.

Drivers may have leased taxis for 12 or 24 hours but worked multiple shifts split up by breaks of three hours or more—such as working during the morning and evening rush hour, but not during the day. It isn’t clear when or how long drivers may have slept between shifts.

Since the city released its 2013 data, the taxi industry has been roiled by the rise of app-driven car services such as Uber, Lyft and Via.

Some drivers and advocates complain that increased competition is pressuring drivers to work longer hours. Yellow-taxi driver Iqbal Singh of Queens, 42 years old, said he works behind the wheel about 12 hours each workday, up from about nine hours a few years ago.

Mr. Singh, a medallion owner, finds it increasingly difficult to find drivers to lease his taxi when he is off. “Less fare on the street—that means less money, longer times you have to run around to look for the fare,” he said.

Lyft said it requires drivers to take a six-hour break after driving for a consecutive 14 hours. In early February, Uber said it would take steps to prevent drivers from using its app for more than 12 consecutive hours.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Austen Hufford at austen.hufford@wsj.com

We Want to Hear From YouHave something to say about an article in Greater New York? Email us, along with your contact information, at gnyltrs@wsj.com. Letters will be edited for brevity and clarity. Please include your city and state.


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