Our Neighbors: Lancaster County Is Buzzing Because Of “New” PAPUC Enforcement On Amish Taxi Drivers

A-TaxiWe are sure you have seen many of these 15 passenger vans cruising the back roads of Lancaster and Chester Counties. A good number of these vehicles are “Amish Taxi’s”. Our Amish Neighbors rely heavily on outside transportation to travel over distances that would take hours in a standard buggy. The Amish call these people who own these vans when transport is needed and pay them either in the form of cash, check, or by bartering for services or goods. For the most part, most taxi drivers are either retired, stay at home moms, or disabled members of society. Some also do it as a part-time gig to make a couple extra buck here and there, but what happens to the van or truck driver that is just being neighborly? They to get lumped in with all the rest of them.

Complaints in recent months have prompted the state Public Utility Commission to crack down on unlicensed “Amish taxis” operating here and elsewhere in the state. Officers have been staking out and confronting drivers who are believed to accept money for transporting Amish people. In the past year, the PUC also has issued 95 letters of warning in the three counties and is considering $1,000 fines for those who refuse to stop. The stepped-up enforcement has been the talk of Luthersburg and surrounding communities, creating tension between people who supplement their incomes by driving Amish people and those who support state efforts to bring drivers into compliance.

“To me, it’s extortion. Pennsylvania does not realize what the Amish do for this state,” said Bonnie Huzinec (A PA taxi driver), ticking off farms, lumber businesses, food stores and other Amish businesses in her community. “A lot of people are very rude, very ignorant about the Amish.”

Ms. Kocher of the PAPUC said the PUC requires anyone who transports others for compensation to obtain a certificate of public convenience, which costs $350 and is renewed each year. Drivers with certificates are monitored to ensure they and their vehicles adhere to rules covering rates and territories, meet safety standards and maintain commercial insurance, Ms. Kocher said.

“It’s different from something occasional, like taking a neighbor to a grocery store,” she said. “We understand that people who are being looked at in one area think they are being picked on. But we are trying to protect the public interest and public safety.”

The commission issues certificates for two categories of for-compensation vehicles: metered taxis, which must meet more stringent regulations; and paratransit carriers, which include passenger cars to 15-passenger vans, Ms. Kocher said. Commercial insurance fees vary for paratransit vehicles but can cost up to $6,000 annually, she said.

The paratransit category includes vehicles used to drive people “whose personal convictions prevent them from driving or operating a vehicle,” including Amish people, Ms. Kocher said. Regulation is necessary to guarantee safety of drivers and paying passengers who, in the event of an accident, would not be covered by non-commercial insurance, she said.

buggyMany in the Amish community feel that this is not the case and that there are to many grey areas of the law and the PAPUC code enforcement. Examples of this are running rampant and no explanations have been given on the matter. For example, If a neighbor gives an Amish family of 5 a ride to take their young child to the doctors, and happens to get into an accident, under PA State law everyone in the vehicle is covered by the owners insurance policy. Does the owner of the vans insurance policy become void if he gives his neighbors a ride?  We don’t think so. Does it become void if the Amish family gives the driver gas money and a little money for their time? Probably not. Then how is it that the PAPUC can enforce this when there are so many people just doing a neighborly thing? We understand that there are legitimate taxi’s out there that are operating as a Amish taxi service and intentionally go a look for new clientele, but this number is small.

The Pennsylvania D.O.T. caused an uproar recently when Gordonville fire company had its annual mud sale. PA D.O.T. set up shop close to the sale and started pulling over every van and/or bus to make sure everyone had the correct paperwork and had a PAPUC number on their van/bus. The problem with this was that the Vans and buses were donated to shuttle people to and from the sale because there isn’t a lot of parking around the sale. These drivers volunteered their time to help out the local fire company and were being nothing short of harassed for their efforts and charity. It is rumored that the PA D.O.T. put 2 of their vehicles out of commission causing some to have to walk back to where their cars were parked which could have been up to a mile away.

Another story is of a van full of Amish that were coming in from Indiana for a funeral of a lost family member. They were pulled over on 340 and because the van didn’t have a PAPUC number, the van wasn’t allowed to continue to the funeral. After much begging the D.O.T. finally let the van go a quarter-mile up the road to unload people at an Amish farm. A Strange Amish farm that none of the people in the van knew. Luckily the Amish are generous people and took the van full of passengers in. The Driver from Indiana refuse to come back into the Intercourse/White Horse area to pick them up to go home, so they had to call at least 25 different people to come get them to provide transport to the funeral and then to York county to meet their Indiana van driver to be taken home.

Is this extortion? Is this right? If not it definitely is discrimination according to the Pennsylvania ACLU. Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, confirmed that his organization is looking at the issue. The ACLU recognizes the PUC’s authority to regulate transportation for hire, but wants to determine if PUC officers first obtain evidence to justify stopping and questioning people suspected of “Driving while with Amish,” Mr. Walczak said. “The fact that you’ve got an ‘English’ person giving rides to one or more Amish persons does not constitute probable cause that this is an illegal jitney service,” he said. “If we acquired evidence that these stops are occurring routinely, we would strongly consider going into federal court. You wonder why is the government spending these kind of resources?”

It seems in a lot of these issues that Amish drivers have been unfairly singled out for enforcement because their passengers are more easily identified.

*Some content derived from Cindi Lash’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here: http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/07364/845400-85.stm

 

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