ACKMAN LAW OFFICE                                                      WRITER-AT-LARGE




From: News and Views | Opinion |
Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Driving Away Taxi Drivers


The Daily News was right in reporting on Sunday that the lack of yellow cabs plaguing the city is a shortage not of machines, but of men. While the number of medallions remains fixed at 12,187, there are fewer drivers willing to put up with the job.

Driving a cab has always been tough work. Dangerous, too. Hours are long, traffic slow. Nerves are easily frayed. Yet there have always been New Yorkers, mostly immigrants in recent years, willing to climb behind the wheel for a 12-hour shift. So what's changed?

One factor is that the booming economy has given cabbies other options. But another is what drivers say is the Taxi & Limousine Commission's selective, overly strict and petty enforcement of its rules.

The News cited cab industry insiders as saying this crackdown is the major reason for the driver shortage. Commission Chairwoman Diane McGrath-McKechnie minimizes the impact. Based on the reporting I've done on the TLC and its legal regime, I'd say the insiders have it right. Experienced drivers are leaving the industry in droves because of what they view as TLC harassment and nitpicking.

It was 18 months ago that McGrath-McKechnie announced a crackdown on bad drivers. The agency increased penalties across the board and said that drivers who accumulated six points on their hack or driver's license would be suspended for 30 days.

At the time, drivers — knowing they could accumulate six points in a heartbeat — predicted the new regime would force cabbies to leave the business. The TLC was undeterred. Last year, it held more than 100,000 disciplinary hearings for drivers on charges ranging from having a dirty cab to failing to signal a turn to refusing service.

Perhaps not incidentally, the TLC bars the press and public from its hearings. Recently, I filed a lawsuit to gain access to the TLC courts, and a state Supreme Court justice ruled that the policy of closed hearings was illegal.

McGrath-McKechnie has since said that the feared exodus has not occurred. The fact is, neither she nor anyone else at the TLC has any idea how many drivers have stopped showing up for work. While the TLC knows how many hack licenses it has issued, it doesn't track how many are in active use.

According to Dottie Statharos, a Queens fleet owner who's had more than her share of legal wrangles with the TLC, drivers who used to work five and six days a week now tend to work two or three, usually when they're not at another job.

Statharos used to run 100 cabs and would borrow more from other owners when an excess of drivers wanted to work. Today, she runs 71 cabs, and on an average shift, 15 of those never leave the garage.

New Yorkers who want to understand the shortage need only stand outside Penn Station — ground zero in the TLC's war on the industry — where they will see cabbies being ticketed for failures as petty as not stopping within 12 inches of the curb. Once the cab is stopped, the cop or inspector will often add another summons — or more — for infractions such as failure to maintain a proper trip sheet.

The TLC's response to the shortage is essentially hakuna matata — no worries. The numbers, said Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for public affairs, "show that the industry has never been more viable." That's good — if you believe it. But cabbies forced out of business and passengers waiting in the rain with their hands in the air may think otherwise.


Ackman, a student at the Columbia School of Journalism,
filed the lawsuit that forced the Taxi & Limousine Commission 
to open its hearings to the public.




ACKMAN LAW OFFICE                                                      WRITER-AT-LARGE