‘It terrified me’: Charlotte taxis under scrutiny over safe transport of the disabled

Charlotte Medicaid patient claims taxi companies don’t buckle up wheelchair users

Linda Keahey rides vans from Charlotte cab companies that contract with DSS to her medical appointments. She claims some of the drivers fail to secure her properly.
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Linda Keahey rides vans from Charlotte cab companies that contract with DSS to her medical appointments. She claims some of the drivers fail to secure her properly.

Charlotte taxis face random inspections by the county after at least three cab companies failed to buckle up a woman in a wheelchair, as federal law requires.

“It terrified me,” 64-year-old Linda Keahey told the Observer about riding four or five times to medical appointments without being secured to her wheelchair in the vans of three Charlotte cab companies. Sometimes the trip included travel on fast-moving Interstate 85, she said.

Linda Keahey.jpg
Linda Keahey said she could have been thrown out of her wheelchair if the taxi stopped suddenly. Joe Marusak jmarusak@charlotteobserver.com

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires “all ADA-compliant buses and vans to have a two-part securement system, one to secure the wheelchair, and a seat belt and shoulder harness for the wheelchair user.”

The companies — City Cab, AA Prestige Taxi Service and Royal Cab — contract with the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services to provide rides to medical appointments for Medicaid patients, such as Keahey.

One abrupt stop, she told the Observer, and she could have been hurled face-first out the side window of the van.

When she asked the drivers to buckle her in with a seat belt and shoulder harness — standard in all cars — Keahey said drivers refused.

“ ‘I’m not your personal driver,’ ” Keahey said one driver told her.

“ ‘They don’t pay me enough,’ ” she said another driver responded.

She said some drivers suggested she sit in the front passenger seat, but her physical limitations made that impossible.

Keahey said no one ever returned the messages she left on the Mecklenburg Transportation System complaint line.

“I complained over and over and to the DSS about these drivers,” Keahey told the Observer. “It’s about safety — my safety and other people’s safety.”

The Observer visited Keahey at her home Wednesday morning when a Royal Cab van picked her up for a medical appointment. The driver lowered a wheelchair ramp for Keahey and then buckled one back wheel and one front wheel of the chair to the floor of the van. The driver did not buckle a seat belt or shoulder harness around Keahey.

The Observer had talked to Keahey after her mental health therapist called the paper this week to request that a reporter contact her client about the seat belt issue.

In response to a request for comment by the Observer later Wednesday morning, a Mecklenburg County spokesman on Thursday replied in an email that the DSS contract administrator “will go out this week and next week to randomly inspect, at a minimum, the three companies that were mentioned to ensure that they are following proper securement protocol.”

“DSS will communicate with all vendors to remind them of their contractual responsibilities for safety,” the email said.

DSS staff also contacted Royal Cab “to find out who the driver was and to get information regarding the situation from their perspective,” the county spokesman said in the email. “Staff reminded Royal Cab of the requirements for wheelchair securement. The driver was instructed to use shoulder harness on the return ride.“

The spokesman also said Royal, City and Prestige wheelchair drivers had participated in a “Passenger Assistance Safety and Sensitivity (PASS) and Wheelchair Securement Training” on Jan. 17-18, “conducted by a certified ADA coordinator.”

Keahey said she was glad to hear about the county’s response. “I just want people to be safe,” she said.

Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.