driven to distraction

Taxi Driver Drug Test Failures Soar Amid Growing Stress

Taxi drivers wait to pick up riders at Penn Station, July 15, 2019.
Taxi drivers wait to pick up riders at Penn Station, July 15, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The number of licensed cab and app-based drivers who failed drug tests more than doubled last year to nearly 500, records obtained by THE CITY show.

Cabbies failed 494 drug screenings in 2018 — up from fewer than 250 in each of the previous three years, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

That’s a 143% jump in failed drug tests from the 203 in 2015, a far greater increase than the 40% rise in TLC-registered drivers during that same period, many of them lured to work for app companies like Lyft and Uber.

About 205,000 individuals now have licenses to operate as a yellow or green taxi, app hail, car service or limo driver in New York City, according to the commission.

Driver advocates say a surge of app-powered competition that put downward pressure on earnings sends some on the hunt for stress relief.

Nine TLC-licensed drivers have committed suicide since 2017.

“Imagine the thousands of drivers that have needed to self medicate,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an association of drivers across the industry.

Regular Drug Testing

All TLC-licensed drivers are drug tested before they get their licenses and each year afterward.
Drivers who fail their drug test face the revocation of their TLC license and can reapply after a year.

Most drivers who failed the test had marijuna in their system, accounting for 64.6% of the drugs identified over the past five years, the TLC said. Cocaine was the second most popular drug, making up 16%, and amphetamines were third with a little over 7%, records show.

Taxi drivers hold a rally at City Hall calling for help dealing with deflated medallion values, on July 11, 2019.
Taxi drivers hold a rally at City Hall calling for help dealing with deflated medallion values, on July 11, 2019. Photo: Reuven Blau/THE CITY

The test-failure figures don’t reflect some drivers’ abuse of alcohol after hours to cope, Desai noted.

“They know how to be functional. They know not to drink while they’re driving,” she said. “We get references for addiction counseling.”

Of the 494 drivers who failed their drug tests last year, 197 chose to argue their cases before a tribunal at the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.

Just five of them persuaded judges to drop their cases — in one instance, a driver successfully argued that doctor-prescribed medication generated the positive test result.

A Pot Brownie Defense

Drivers can be disqualified even if they take prescription medicine. That’s what happened to Iran Tejada, who tested positive for codeine after, he said, he took his wife’s back pain medicine to relieve a toothache.

Tejada, who drove for Uber for four months before the screening, testified he was scheduled to visit a dental surgeon and didn’t know codeine is an illegal controlled substance if taken without a prescription.

“It’s something very stupid,” his wife, Lucia De La Cruz, told THE CITY. “I saw him in pain and I said, ‘Do you want to take a painkiller?’ ”

An OATH administrative law judge ruled his license should be yanked, noting that only people who accidentally ingest drugs are exempt.

A claim of ignorance saved driver Ibrahim Turay, who last year persuaded OATH that his positive drug test owed to a pot brownie he unknowingly ate half of.

Most drivers don’t show up to the hearings and the judge automatically rules against them, records show. The final decision to revoke a driver’s taxi license is made by the TLC commissioner.

TLC officials note the share of drivers who fail the test remains low even with last year’s spike — less than one-tenth of one percent of its licensed operators of yellow taxis, green taxis, app drivers, black cars and limousines.

At the Breaking Point

Veteran drivers express bewilderment that anyone in their business would take forbidden substances.

Cab driver Augustine Tang, 35, surmised younger drivers are behind the spike.

“I don’t think 65- and 70-year-olds are doing drugs,” he said after a rally last Thursday urging the de Blasio administration to bail out medallion owner-drivers from unsustainable debts. “A lot more younger people are smoking weed.”

What’s not in question is that yellow cab drivers have to work longer hours to compete with services like Uber and Lyft — all the more so if they own their medallions and need to repay loans that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cab drivers typically earned about $35 an hour before the tech industry swept into the market. But that number has dropped to around $15 an hour, drivers and their advocates say.

“Everybody is working extra hours right now,” said driver Burhan Uddin, 65, from East New York, Brooklyn.

He used to own two taxi medallions, but both were seized after he was unable to make payments to cover his loan balance when it came due in three years.

Another driver attending the rally spoke of the health toll of all the hours he’s stuck behind the wheel trying to keep up with his loan payments.

Mohammed Hoque, 49, says he takes 10 medications for his high blood pressure and diabetes, after stretching to buy a medallion in 2014.

“Before I got the medallion I didn’t need to take anything,” said Hoque, whose plight was highlighted in a New York Times story about owner-drivers’ woes.

In the wake of The Times’ investigation, Councilmembers Mark Levine (D-Washington Heights) and Carolina Rivera (D-East Village) urged the de Blasio administration to bail out the drivers by diminishing their debts.

Under one proposal, the drivers would be required to pay $900 a month to pay off the restructured loans. Mayor Bill de Blasio has opposed the bailout, saying it would cost the city an estimated $13 billion.

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.