August 31, 1998

Crackdown on Cabdrivers Could Backfire, Critics Warn

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    When Yakub Sachakov, a cabdriver, came off the Manhattan Bridge into Chinatown on Aug. 10, a police officer spotted him making an illegal right turn. After barking orders to stop through a loudspeaker, the officer handed Sachakov, an émigré from Kazakhstan, a fistful of tickets -- four for failing to follow traffic rules and one for taking too long to pull over.

    Sachakov, 52, was so stunned and demoralized by the blizzard of tickets that he has worked only two days since then. Because of two prior violations, his hack license is almost certain to be suspended or revoked, and he will have to pay hundreds of dollars in fines.

    As Sachakov has learned, the rules of the road -- and the consequences of violating them -- have changed drastically for cabbies since Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani began his crackdown last spring amid growing concerns about taxi safety. Police figures show that ticketing of cabbies is up 36 percent over last year's pace, and city officials acknowledge that it has become fairly common for officers to write multiple tickets for some offenses. In addition, stiffer fines and penalties took effect late last month, and fleet owners are expecting a wave of drivers to be suspended as the latest tickets are processed.

    Taxi regulators say this hard-nosed campaign is making cabbies more cautious and should help bring down the accident rate among a class of drivers who have long been criticized for their risky antics. "I think we've got everyone's attention," said Diane McGrath-McKechnie, chairwoman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

    But many drivers and fleet owners, and even some judges in the commission's own court system, say some aspects of the enforcement initiative amount to overkill, and are likely to worsen a shortage of full-time drivers.

    Other critics say cabbies' desperate need for fares leads some to drive recklessly, and if the city wants to improve taxi service, it must also find ways to make getting behind the wheel more profitable.

    "The city's approach is really to use negative reinforcement on the industry, to do tougher enforcement and higher fines," said Edward G. Rogoff, a professor of management at Baruch College in Manhattan who has studied the taxi industry.

    "It seems to me that encouraging a system where drivers can make it a profession and earn a living and stay in the industry awhile would have a much better effect."

    Surveys by the taxi commission show that the drivers who receive the fewest traffic tickets are generally those who have been in the business for five years or more and are used to its pressures. So one of the most difficult questions now is whether it is wise to chase drivers out of the business after two or three tickets and replace them with inexperienced drivers.

    City officials, who regulate nearly every aspect of the taxi business, say they are aware that more needs to be done, and are readying a second round of changes.

    Last week, the taxi commission announced plans to require more extensive training for new cabbies. It has also scheduled a hearing for tomorrow on one of the most basic aspects of the industry's economics: the fees that most yellow-cab drivers pay to lease their medallions, or licenses, from the cabs' owners.

    Ms. McGrath-McKechnie would not say whether her agency is considering major changes. But another new rule, requiring taxis to carry much more accident insurance, takes effect tomorrow.

    And veteran drivers, especially those who own their medallions, say they fear that insurance costs, which are expected to jump 40 percent, coupled with the new fines of up to $1,000 for each violation, could drive them out of the business.

    Indeed, industry officials said, the next major battle might be over whether there should be a fare increase to pay for the safety improvements. The industry would like an increase, but Ms. McGrath-McKechnie has said she sees no need for one. City officials say medallion owners should absorb the costs of the safety improvements and find ways for drivers to make more money.

    But so far, the early results of the Mayor's actions are most visible in the tensions on the streets, where the Police Department's taxi unit is monitoring cabbies more closely at busy locations like Pennsylvania Station and other checkpoints.

    In interviews, a number of drivers said they recognized the city's need to tighten enforcement of traffic laws, and some said they are driving more carefully now. But city statistics show that the number of tickets issued to cabbies had already doubled from 1995 to last year. And in recent months, the cabbies say, officers have been issuing tickets that classify many common violations as more severe infractions.

    Taxi and police officials deny persecuting cabbies.

    But some drivers are getting support from an unlikely quarter.

    Several judges in the taxi commission's court system, which has a history of upholding the overwhelming majority of the tickets given to taxi drivers, said they have recently downgraded or dismissed reckless-driving charges or refused to accept guilty pleas from drivers who did not understand the consequences.

    "Most of the senior judges are looking at these things and they're appalled by it," said one judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Most of the cops say they don't like it either, but they have to do what they have to do."

    The commission's new penalty system applies retroactively to the last 18 months of a driver's record. So just one new ticket could push hundreds of drivers like Sachakov into 30-day suspensions or cause their licenses to be revoked.

    Members of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents owners of the largest taxi fleets, said some drivers have begun to cut back their hours or look for other work. They said this partly explains why an average of 18.5 percent of their fleets' cars were idle each day in July, up from 13.8 percent each day in July 1997.

    Allen Kaplan, one of the fleet owners, said: "There are guys coming in saying, 'Allen, I don't know if I can continue. Maybe I've had it.' And what's disheartening is that these are the veteran drivers, the type of driver we're all looking for."

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