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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, July 19, 2024


April 14, 2004 – Sen. Usie Richards' much-discussed bill to standardize and regulate commercial vehicle inspections and establish a separate commercial driver's license won enthusiastic endorsement from the police on Tuesday, but emphatic rejection by the taxi industry.
Testifying on the measure before the Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee on Tuesday evening were members of the Police Department, taxi operators and truckers.
It was the bill's second hearing before the Public Safety committee. At a March session on St. Croix, the measure was held to gather more information from taxi drivers. Previously, it had been heard in the Government Operations and Rules committees.
Richards expressed hope on Tuesday that the bill will be passed. "This is the seventh meeting," he said, noting that in addition to the Senate sessions, he has held three town meetings on the proposal, two on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix.
However, taxi operators – under a newly formed organization, Taxis in Unity — were vehement in their objections to the bill on Tuesday. The organization represents 13 taxi companies and organizations. "At least," the committee chair, Sen. Lorraine Berry, commented, "it's nice to see you all together."
Judith Wheatley, Taxis in Unity president, said the proposed regulations would hinder the taxi business and "could amount to what some may call harassment."
Wheatley objected to the bill's provision for spot inspections to be done by certified inspectors on the road. "We don't believe that the federal government has given money for training and implementation just to have 'on the road spotting inspections' for commercial vehicles," she said.
Current law doesn't differentiate between commercial and personal vehicles. Taxi vans, large trucks and safari buses undergo the same inspections as automobiles do. A commercial vehicle is defined as one weighing 10,001 pounds or more.
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis said told the committee: "We have been awaiting this legislation for more than nine years. It is sound legislation. I dearly await the final version."
Responding to Berry's questions, Lewis said he was reiterating what he has said at previous meetings: "This bill is important for the people of the Virgin Islands. It is intended to protect our residents and visitors from harm's way. While special-interest groups may wish to be excluded from the proposed law, it is highly important that the very groups seeking exclusion from this bill be included to ensure all segments of motor carrier safety are enforced."
Lewis said the North American Standard Vehicle Out-of-Service criteria are the basis of established guidelines and procedures for inspection based on federal regulations. The Police Department follows the North American standard, he said, but "we have no mechanism in place that would allow us to issue citations for violation — or for cases to be heard about such violations; nor are there penalties for violations."
Richards' measure would establish a schedule of fines for violations.
By authorizing the police to inspect commercial motor vehicles and issue citations for violations and empowering the Territorial Court to impose fines for violations, Lewis said, "this bill goes much further in increasing safety of our highways."
The bill would require commercial vehicles to undergo inspections of brakes, fuel tanks and steering. "Right now, inspections are once a year," Freddy Ortiz Jr., a traffic officer for 11 years, told the committee, "but if the law passes, we can do it anytime. This will put the fear of God in you, because this keeps commercial vehicles in check."
Wheatley objected to everything in the bill. "It is tough doing business legally here in 'America's Paradise.' Our industry has been rampantly infiltrated with illegal passenger-carrying activity," she said, referring to so-called gypsy taxis. "What is being done to eliminate this illegal activity? Absolutely nothing. You think you'll lose votes on election day if you enforce the law on this matter? I don't think so. Let the record speak for itself."
She also said the association's research raises questions about the definition of "interstate and/or intrastate commerce." She said the federal laws do not extend to "a commerce which is completely internal."
Wheatley ended her statement by telling the senators: "We, the taxi operators in the U.S. Virgin Islands, represent a significant number of votes that count every election year. Don't forget it!"
Richards' proposal would raise the minimum age for driving commercial vehicles to 21 from the current 18 and would require commercial drivers' licenses.
Sen. Louis Hill asked Lewis why no law requiring commercial licenses has ever been enacted. Lewis and Barbara McIntosh, the Police Department's Public Safety Division administrator, said they did not know. But Lewis said that in June the department will begin free commercial drivers' license training in a program which lasts about six months.
The bill was held in committee pending further research. Berry mentioned a possible May 5 date for another hearing.
Committee members present were Sens. Berry, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald Russell. Sen. David Jones was absent. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who is not a member of the committee, also was present.

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