AUSTIN (KXAN) - The pedicab with two passengers in the cab came barreling down a downtown Austin street approaching a stop sign on a busy weekend night.
The driver raised his right hand in a waving motion and powered through the sign without stopping. A pedestrian stayed on the curb until the pedicab passed.
Asked by someone at the curb why he blew through without stopping, the driver turned around while continuing to pedal ahead: “Because I have passengers in there.”
It’s a scene that played out time and again with several different pedicab drivers the night KXAN watched from the street corner. It’s a scene that plays out nearly every night in Austin’s bustling downtown.
And it’s a scene that has dangerous consequences for the drivers of pedicabs, the riders in the cab and the for motorists they encounter on the way to and from many of Austin’s most popular night spots.
Since airing its original report, “Pedicabs: A ride or a risk” last year, KXAN has obtained seven lawsuits against pedicab companies in Austin. All were filed by passengers who have been in serious accidents in downtown.
Their injuries ranged from from broken bones to concussions to major surgery. Some of the victims say such cases should be more than enough to show the city it’s time to take action.
Some rough rides recalled
Jason Raborn was in downtown Austin, on his way home from ACL fest in October 2010 riding in a pedicab.
“I remember waking up in the hospital with my boss sitting next to me not knowing what my last memory was,” Raborn recalled. The images though are hard to forget, and hard to get past. “You don’t expect the guy who’s driving you, who’s supposed to be responsible to put you in danger,” he said.
Raborn said his pedicab driver changed lanes too fast, cutting off a truck that slammed right into them. He was thrown into the street, knocked out and suffered gashes to his face, legs and hands. He accrued $46,000 in medical bills and no memory of that moment.
“I’ve had to cope. I’ve had to change how I do things,” Raborn said. But the question remains: Has Austin’s pedicab industry changed the way it does things?
Last month, KXAN cameras caught pedicab drivers running read lights, ignoring stop signs and weaving dangerously in and out of traffic all while ferrying passengers.
Michael Castillo said his pedicab ride was a life-changing moment for him.Three years ago, he hopped in a pedicab near east Fourth street. No sooner did he get in the cab, he said, it came loose from the bike.
It fell and hit his head on the pavement hard. He said he had a concussion and bleeding from the brain. There were also several surgeries and seizers related to the accident. To this day, his vision and speech are still affected.
“We got in, sat down and it flipped backwards and we both hit our heads,” Castillo said. “I had a hard time with my words and my thoughts and trying to focus. “So it’s always there…it’s never going to go away. No matter what I do it will never go away.”
In Castillol’s case, he had to spend $20,000 out of his own pocket to pay for what insurance didn’t cover. He also sued and settled with the pedicab company.
“Would you agree there’s a problem right now? Yes, there’s a problem,” said Sgt. Paul Harper with the Austin Police Department. APD does not track pedicab accidents. They do give citations when they see a driver breaking the law.
“There’s only so much we can do,” said Harper. “Resources are pretty thin downtown.”
And, he added, those resources are largely focused on crowds and other crimes like in the busy Sixth street area. But even when they do pull over a pedicab, Harper said “The No. 1 excuse we get is they didn’t know they were committing a violation. But is that an excuse? It’s not an excuse.”
How another city deals with pedicabs
In Denver, a city similar in size and demographics to Austin, once had its own pedicab problems. Larry Stevenson, who oversees pedicabs for the city of Denver, watched snippets of KXAN’s video of the cabs in Austin.
“That’s disgraceful to the industry,” he said as he watched drivers weave in and out of traffic with little regard for lights and signage. “It’s disgusting and it’s disheartening to me as a safety professional.”
Similar safety concerns led Stevenson to tighten Denver’s regulations on pedicabs last spring.
“So far we have seen zero incidents, zero accidents and zero tickets,” he said, attributing that to Denver now requiring all drivers to have safety training and pedicabs must have license plates.
Brian Ross with Mile High Pedicab in Denver said the new rules make sense. “License plates, obviously, makes the company or the person accountable for their actions.”
Austin doesn’t have those rules. But Stevenson said: “I can guarantee he you would not be driving people in the city of Denver. That can not happen.”
Austin’s reaction to Denver’s experience
Raborn sued and settled with the pedicab company from his accident.
“I’ve seen these guys downtown racing in-between cars. The light turns green and they just rush right in between. I don’t think we should have the pedicabs.”
The City does have rules in place. It can remove a pedicab from service if it doesn’t display a handful of items, including driver credentials, the pedicab company’s name, phone number and unit number and a permit decal and an annual city inspection decal.
But one Austin City Council member said Denver’s experience might hold positive lessons locally.
“Do the pedicab drivers go through enough training?” said Councilman Chris Riley. “We we may need to look at requiring more training.”
When KXAN first reported a year ago about some of the dangers associated with pedicabs, Riley rewrote the pedicab regulations. But a year later, accidents continue to happen.
The new rules require every pedicab driver have insurance. And it’s mandatory for every pedicab to get inspected. Riley has not ruled out offering further measures perhaps as early as next spring if they’d make the streets safer.
“If license plates are part of that (Denver’s regulations) then we need to consider that and whether it needs to happen here,” he said. “I think we did the best we could. We probably could do even better in the coming round of changes. And I hope we’ll get there.”