San Francisco Adopts Alcohol and Drug Testing for Taxi Drivers

The city's 5,500 active taxicab drivers will now be required to undergo drug and alcohol testing.  (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

San Francisco transportation officials adopted an alcohol and drug testing program for the city's 5,500 taxicab drivers Tuesday, but opted against complying with federal and state regulations that require drivers to be suspended if they test positive for marijuana.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors unanimously approved the new policy, but amended it so that drivers who do test positive for marijuana would keep their taxi permits if they show a valid medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor.

Under the policy, taxi drivers must submit to drug and alcohol tests when they apply for taxi permits, renew the permits annually or get in a collision. They'll also be tested in cases where there's a "reasonable suspicion" that they're inebriated or intoxicated, said Kate Toran, the head of the SFMTA's taxi services division. A positive drug or alcohol test could lead to a suspension or a driver's permit could be revoked.

The city has been out of compliance with state regulations adopted in 1996 that require alcohol and drug testing of taxicab drivers. The new policy, which took six years to craft, would put the city "mostly in compliance," said Toran.

Several taxi drivers testified that the policy, as originally proposed, was another example of how the cab industry is competing on an uneven playing field with ride services such as Uber and Lyft.

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Drivers for transportation network companies, regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, are not required to undergo the same kind of substance abuse testing and don't have to comply with more stringent local regulations. Limousine drivers, also regulated by the CPUC, are required to undergo drug testing similar to the SFMTA's new program.

In an interview, Hansu Kim, CEO of Flywheel Taxi, said the marijuana component would have put up another barrier of entry for taxi drivers and would have potentially caused more taxi drivers to defect to Uber or Lyft.

"You have people driving for Uber and Lyft who don't have to go through that filter of accountability. That's what I worry about," said Kim, who added that he has never had a driver who's been arrested for marijuana impairment. "We believe in drug testing, and we want to make sure our drivers are not taking hard drugs."

One taxi driver testified she uses medical marijuana for back pain and suspects many others use it to cope with similar ailments caused by driving for long periods of time.

Dale Gieringer, executive director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the board should be skeptical about drug testing.

"Drug testing does not check for actual impairment. It tests for past use of drugs," he testified. "There's not one study that says drug urine testing improves driving or workplace safety. There are many studies that show people who test positive for marijuana are no more dangerous than regular drivers."

The vote to exempt medical marijuana users was 4-2, with directors Malcolm Heinicke and Joél Ramos casting no votes. While he agreed testing is "imprecise," Heinicke added that exempting medical marijuana users sent the wrong message about the city's taxi industry.

"If someone is using medical marijuana, whether that's legal or not, they shouldn't be driving a car, especially with other people in it, while under the influence of that marijuana," said Heinicke. "I'm not sure that a recommendation or prescription solves the safety issue."

Board members agreed that they would like to see a change in state law so that Uber and Lyft drivers are also required to undergo similar testing. A bill by Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, D-Los Angeles, which seeks tighter regulations on Uber and Lyft and would require random drug testing, is expected to be considered in the next legislative session after failing last year.

The new drug and alcohol testing program adopted by the SFMTA will be operated by a contractor, Energetix Corp., and cost the agency an estimated $900,000 a year. It's scheduled to take effect in a month.