It is not expected that San Diego cab drivers will soon be openly advertising how nice their cabs smell, but they are certainly aware of the attention being paid by regulators to perceived foul odors during inspections.
And they don’t like it.
The inspection form approved by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority lists “body odor” as one of 52 criteria airport officers can use to boot someone out of the taxi queue. In addition to inspecting a vehicle’s body condition, internal cleanliness, brakes, lights, the heater, etc., officers can check for “foul interior odors” in general, and body odor in particular.
Bad odor is in the nose of the smell tester, to some extent, and can be influenced by cultural expectations. Some people find the judging of odor to have a whiff of racism about it, but it’s a subject that has been fair game for the public at-large, as Megan Burke at KPBS pointed out when she linked to this 1998 Jerry Seinfeld riff about New York cabbie B.O.
But it’s one thing to riff about body odor in a comedy routine, it’s another to codify it as a violation in official regulations and penalize someone for failing a smell test. Companies often have codes of dress that imply presentability is required but generally dance around the issue of smell because it’s subjective and could be related to health or other issues.
San Diego State University and the Center on Policy Initiatives surveyed 331 local drivers in 2013 and found 94% were immigrants and 65% were from East Africa. The 12-page report found a lot of things wrong with the taxi business—drivers make $5 an hour, they have no company benefits, they almost all drive cars they rent by the week, they work when they’re sick and they have almost no hope of becoming owner-operators—but smelly cabs wasn’t one of them.
Sarah Saez, an organizer with cabdriver association United Taxi Workers of San Diego, called sniff tests demeaning and “borderline racist.” University of California, San Diego Professor Fatima El-Tayeb says the policy crosses that borderline:
“You have this narrative of excess, right. (Immigrants are) too smelly, they're too noisy, too many. . . . So it’s this kind of argument that allows measures that otherwise would be considered unacceptable, offensive, humiliating.”
Airport spokeswoman Rebecca Bloomfield says inspectors have been smelling cabbies for years and they are rarely penalized for flunking the test.