Tuesday, February 16 2010 10:27 AM EST2010-02-16 15:27:03 GMT
Las Vegas visitors and locals alike are being long hauled -- taken the long way by cab drivers. The practice is illegal, but happens every hour of every day, right under the noses of the state officers who are supposed to protect the public.More>>
Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Las Vegas cabs provided 26 million rides last year. The state Taxicab Authority says a tiny percentage of the passengers were taken the long way by the driver, a practice known as long hauling.
But drivers themselves say long hauling is far more common than state officials care to admit. And, they add, state regulators have allowed it to continue.
This is not an attack on taxi drivers. As you're about to learn, drivers find themselves in a tight spot. If they don't cheat their customers by taking the long way, they can -- and do -- lose their jobs. And, they tell Eyewitness News, the Taxicab Authority does little, if anything to stop a practice that is now rampant in the industry.
"Some of these rides are legitimate. The majority of them are not," said former taxi cop Scott Lewis who says catching cabbies who long haul is a fish-in-a-barrel proposition. Chances are, taxis that exit south from the airport through the connector tunnel, then head north on the freeway to reach the Las Vegas Strip are taking the long way.
Those rides typically add five or more dollars to the fare over the shorter route and, depending on the time of day, might take more time.
"I considered most cab drivers to be just inmates with drivers licenses. Inmates on wheels, that's what I called them," said Larry Johnston, a former Taxicab Authority officer. Johnston admits he's jaded after six years of overseeing cabbies at McCarran International Airport.
Among the hundreds of drivers assembled in the taxi pit, he'd see drugs, guns, fistfights, thievery and long hauling.
"I'm saying 50 to 60 percent of the rides out at the airport are long hauls. You are looking at hundreds of them per day, per shift. As far as a dollar amount, I could not even begin to guess," Johnston said.
The I-Team conducted our own count on different days at different times. In a 30-minute period, 63 cabs went left, the direct route, and 63 went right, the long way. A second count showed 107 took the cheaper route, 83 took the expensive route.
Under state law, it's not long hauling if the driver gets the okay from the passenger to take a route that might cost more. Some drivers do this. As we found out, others do not.
I-Team photographer Matt Adams jumped in a taxi at the airport and asked to go to Caesars Palace. The driver didn't say anything about taking the more expensive route. He headed right for the tunnel. I-team producer Ian Russell had an identical experience. But early in his ride, he told the driver he wanted to go by the cheapest route and the driver still went the long way. The rides to Caesars cost at least $23 each. According to the taxi authority's posted fares, the cost should have been $16 dollars.
"You are talking about most of the drivers don't even speak English hardly. There is no way in the world they are getting that kind of consent even though they will lie to your face and tell you they are," said Johnston.
"It's called selling the tunnel. They rely on a language barrier, don't talk at all, talking on the cell phone or get them going and make them laugh and get their mind off the fact that they are being taken the long way," said former driver turned lobbyist Randy Hynes. He says long hauling by drivers is systematic. Drivers are forced to do it by their employers because of what's called the daily average. Drivers who do not earn the average of what other drivers earn during a shift risk losing their shifts or their jobs. Hynes says his bosses told him to long haul.
"I said I can't do that. I can't go and systematically long haul people from the airport all night long. And the supervisor said, 'we don't want you to do it all night long, we just want you to make the average.'" If the average is inflated by long hauling, an honest driver can either join in or quit.
"The high bookers get the bigger perks, the better cars, the better shifts, and the low bookers get suspended, fired, hassled," Johnston said.
The long hauling is condoned and encouraged by the cab companies. Since cab companies examine the trip sheets of every driver, they have to know who is long hauling and who isn't. Critics say the Taxicab Authority has to know as well.
"I think part of it is sour grapes on the part of some drivers," said taxi administrator Gordon Walker. He says long hauling enforcement is one of his top priorities, that enforcement has been stepped up, and that he does not believe cab companies order drivers to do it because they risk being shut down. He says long hauling is not so common.
"Last year, we did 3,800 rides out of the airport. Probably as a percentage of those, maybe one half of one percent of actual long hauls," said Walker.
Former Taxicab Authority officer Scott Lewis says the agency isn't catching long haulers on purpose. When he and other officers at the airport started ticketing long haulers, their boss told them to stop immediately.
"'Get back into your office and don't stop a Desert taxi for the rest of the night. If you do, that is going to be your job,'" Lewis said.
Lewis was fired from his job as an airport officer for the taxi authority. His bosses cited a whole long list of things he did wrong, but he says he was canned for blowing the whistle on his own agency and he's not alone in his suspicions.
Friday night George Knapp will report at 11 p.m. on the taxi authority about their use of sting operations and citations against drivers who cross the line.
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