Seattle proposes eliminating hygiene standards for taxi drivers

SEATTLE -- Behind the wheel of a taxi cab for 20 years, Jagjit Singh has seen it all.

Ask him about the tougher roads he's been down, though, and he'll talk about the bumpy one between taxi drivers and the city of Seattle.

"Our company should regulate (things), not the city," he says as he drives north toward the Emerald City on Wednesday night. "This is an independent job."

Singh is among the many taxi drivers supporting proposed changes in the Seattle budget package for next year. The changes would eliminate current dress code and hygiene standards among taxi and for-hire drivers, removing the requirement that drivers be "neat and clean," among other things.

According to the city, neat and clean means clothes should be "clean, free from soil, grease and dirt and without unrepaired rips and tears." In terms of cleanliness, the city currently requires an "absence of offensive body odor" and "well groomed" facial hair.

"Basically they're saying, 'Treat us like adults,'" said Denise Movius, deputy director of the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, which oversees taxi regulations in the city of Seattle. "We don't dictate to any other business in the city how they should dress."

Movius - and other city officials - say the hospitality industry has expressed concern that removing uniform and hygiene standards among taxi drivers could send tourists searching for air freshener - and leave them with a negative impression of the Emerald City.

"We're trying to be a world-class city. I don't think this goes in the right direction," said Eli Darland, who owns both a for-hire company and a limo service in Western Washington. "Most of the hotels are appalled at the level of service that the taxis are giving," he added. "Now Seattle is saying, 'Hey, let's make it worse.'"

Supporters of the change say drivers can regulate what they wear, how they look, and smell - and will, out of necessity.

"People are not going to want to patronize your business if they have an unpleasant experience," said Dawn Gearhart with the Western Washington Taxi Cab Operators Association. "(Drivers) have the same interests you do in keeping this business running, keeping it viable, keeping it presentable, and making it something people continue to patronize because there are other options."

After driving Western Washington roads for two decades, Singh says he couldn't agree more.

"(The) city should not force a driver to wear a uniform," he said. "You work for Boeing? You work for Microsoft? They force you to wear (a) uniform? No. But (in Seattle) it's too many regulations."

The city council will take public input on the measure - and other budget-related issues - Thursday starting at 5:30 p.m. at city hall.