SEATTLE — Consumers looking for a stylish ride from a hotel or ferry docks could get stronger protections this year under legislation aimed at for-hire chauffeurs in Seattle who are uninsured or unlicensed.
A growing number of fancy, for-hire Lincoln Town Cars have been operating illegally on Seattle streets, taking business from taxis and legitimate limousine companies, city officials say. But officials have been unable to enforce state regulations because the Department of Licensing had control over limousine laws without enough resources to enforce them.
House Bill 1775 would transfer enforcement from the state to the city's Consumer Affairs Unit, allowing city taxi inspectors to begin regulating limousines and executive sedans, too. Officials hope that will enable them to more quickly spot scofflaws and better protect consumers and legitimate businesses.
"We've been dealing with this issue for more than a decade, and we feel like we tried everything short of doing it ourselves," said Craig Leisy, manager of Seattle's Consumer Affairs Unit.
The executive sedan law, as it is written, mostly relies on companies to regulate themselves. License holders certify that their drivers meet qualifications and pass criminal history checks.
But self-employed drivers who own just one vehicle make up about 70% of the executive sedan industry. City officials estimate that up to 20% of for-hire town cars operating in Seattle weren't insured.
The state, unlike the city's taxi enforcement office, doesn't have enough employees to regularly audit license holders. Enforcement operations happen once or twice a year, and investigations must go through a slow administrative process.
The Seattle P-I reviewed state and local records two years ago and found alarming instances in which Town Car drivers flouted the law. In one case, a registered sex offender was picking up customers at Colman Dock. In another case, a driver held a California woman against her will after he pretended to work for a limousine company she'd hired to take her from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The story drew protests from drivers who thought it unfairly singled out an industry that is dominated by disadvantaged immigrants trying to start better lives, or who can't afford to break into the taxi business. The city and King County regulate how many licenses are issued for cabs, meaning that new taxi drivers have to lease or pay big money to buy a taxi license from a current holder.
The legislation was written to allow Seattle, King County, and the Port of Seattle to issue license and regulations in addition to enforcing laws on executive sedans and limousines. Seattle is home to 76% of licensed limousines and executive sedans statewide.
The Puget Sound Limousine Association and limousine companies encourage tougher enforcement on "rogue" competitors but question whether the legislation would create confusion and additional costs. Some prefer that city officials be given to authority to enforce state laws without the need to set their own regulations.
"We all want the same things. We want the rogue operators out of the ports, out of the hotels and off the streets. The best way to do that is just to enforce the (current) regulations," said Eli Darland, president of Rare Form Limousine, a local company.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott White, D-Seattle, said he plans to amend the bill to allow local jurisdictions to enforce laws although Licensing would continue to set regulations. The amendment would establish new fees to help pay for local enforcement costs.
"This is motivated by some very serious public safety concerns for Seattle residents and visitors," White said. "Right now, we lack the oversight and enforcement of our Town Cars."
The measure has not yet reached the floor for a full vote. Based on the original bill without the amendment, the city of Seattle's Leisy said they would have to charge $600 for a Town Car driver's license — the same as taxi drivers pay — and require drivers to meet the same standards as licensed taxi drivers.
Town car drivers pay a $40 licensing fee.
The proposal has support from the taxi industry, which is heavily regulated by the city, but often competes against Town Car drivers acting as illegal cabs. State law restricts Town Cars and limousines to prearranged trips, but many pick up cab fares, anyway, offering the same price as taxis.
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer