Monday, March 15, 2010

Subway Safety and Taxi Price-Gouging

NOTE: I've revised the previous post, adding specific refusal rules that I copy/pasted off the TLC website, removing unnecessary clutter (like the Arab driver's beautiful accent, which could be mistaken for xenophobia on my part), and clarifying what I meant when mentioning Danny Glover (which could be misconstrued as racism, but really just an empathic emotion I feel toward his plight for dignity). Please take another gander at it if you've already read it. In today's post I'd like to cover a few loosely knit themes. Bear with me.

Did you hear about the lady who jumped into a subway rail pit in Manhattan last week, in order to save her toiletries pouch that she accidently dropped down there? According to the report, people in the station were yelling at her to lay down on the track as an unstoppable 6 train approached, but she panicked and ended up crushed between train car and platform.

The MTA doesn't put effort into training people to survive such a predicament, probably because they don't want folks to get the wrong ideas in their heads. If I understand correctly, the best advice is to lay down flat on your back in the rancid gap between the tracks, and let the train go over and past you. That is how an altruist saved a fallen straphanger in 2007. Perhaps the gap under the edge of the platform is good too. I don't know. We (as New Yorkers) should know these things. One thing's for sure. Don't go chasing after something if it falls into the pit (unless you're saving a human being and you know what you're doing). The MTA will retrieve items in due time. That's what us taxi drivers pay them to do. Ride in our cabs and we'll send a 50 cent contribution, from every fare, to all the worthwhile causes of the underground.

Onto the more current topic of double rate scams. It's all over the news and being amply discussed among cabbie circles right now. All I have to say is that I saw it coming. It's easy for a driver to engage the rate 4 button with a light tap on the meter, at any point during a trip. It's not hard to get away with it because nearly no one takes their receipt, which would reveal the scam outright (Nassau-West(chester) would be printed on it.) Such an easy deception can be as tempting as human nature is predictable, particularly in the psyche of people who are so poorly compensated (and even occasionally punished) for their ceaseless efforts to serve the public proficiently, and to protect their welfare.

I'm not advocating anything here. I would be extremely angry if my cabdriver did that to me, and the golden rule happens to be my religion. I treat my passengers the way I'd want to be treated. I'm just saying, "What'd you expect?" I guess every collar gets a turn as criminal. Blue, white, and now yellow. I feel like they (TLC) might have known what kind of inevitable traps they were setting up when they introduced the new system. Call me Mel Gibson in the movie "Conspiracy Theory."

I, for one, always try to end every fare about a half block early, so that my fares have a few moments to swipe their card or count their cash before we stop, especially if there's no safe place to pull over (often the case), which minimizes danger time. Since I remain focused on driving while searching with my finger to end the fare and print the receipt, and since all of these rate buttons are so small and closely placed, I have made the rare mistake of pressing rate 4 (perhaps twice a month, or so). But since I end the fare within 1-3 seconds of the mistake, it has no effect on the total the passenger owes me.

I'm sure similar scenarios of accidently pressing the wrong button happen to cabdrivers all the time. You go to pause the meter, so it doesn't run while you check your street atlas for an obscure destination, or because you agreed to wait for a passenger without charging them for wait time, and all of a sudden the meter reads rate 4 instead of the usual 1. In a situation like that I either just end the metered fare immediately or explain to the passenger (if we've already established mutual rapport) what has accidently occurred (it's now charging double) and we settle for a mutual solution, like turning it off halfway between here and there. Examples like this (where being as earnest and fair as possible can ironically land you into trouble) abound in taxi life. Why do you think the city found that 35,558 out of the 48,000 drivers (only about 40,000 are active drivers) had illegally pressed the rate 4 button? Here's an excerpt from the NY Times:
The taxi industry vigorously challenged the city’s findings, saying it was unimaginable that such a pervasive problem could be the result of deliberate fraud. “This is clearly a systematic failure on the part of the meters and the technology,” said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents cabbies. “For this to be so widespread — nearly every single driver — makes no sense,” she added.

One solution a neighbor of mine presented is to have the meter buttons color-coded. Right now they're all gray and the same small size, one right next to the other. I must say that when all this hoopla came out about the epidemic of price-gouging, I was expecting there to be an instant increase in passenger hostility, mistrust, and suspicion.... but in the handful of shifts I've worked since the story proliferated in the media, I simply haven't seen that happen. Passengers, for the most part, continue to be polite and understanding, or at least not incriminating. All they have to do is look at the far right side of the meter and see what code number is being displayed.

1 is a normal in-town fare.
2 is a JFK rate (to and from that airport and Manhattan)
3 is a Newark Airport rate (starts at 17.50, plus tolls)
4 should only be on there if you've left the city limits of the five boroughs.
Once 2, 3, or 4 appears on the meter it cannot be reversed back to 1.

Every once in a while a cabdriver will outright forget to even initiate the meter when a passenger first enters. It usually happens when something distracts the driver during the pick-up. It could be the frantic loading of luggage (or other cargo) into the trunk. It could also be that the driver's only way to pick up the passenger was by stopping at a precarious point in traffic. It may be that upon entry, the passenger urgently requested a right turn be made from the leftmost lane (or vice versa). The driver must then attempt to safely shift several lanes of traffic within a matter of seconds and feet.

I'd say the most common one for me is when I drop someone off that involves a frantic scramble of some sort (children/cargo/time crunch/traffic obstruction), and then a new passenger immediately enters the cab with their own frantic scramble. I take off again instantly. I'm lucky if I remember to erase the previous passenger's total off the meter, let alone engage it anew. No, that doesn't mean this passenger will have to pay the previous fare. The meter isn't accruing anymore. It's sitting idle, waiting for the final receipt-printing to be engaged by the driver.

If I forget to turn the meter on, I tell the passenger that it's pay-as-you-wish, like at the Metropolitan Museum. Whatever they felt the ride was worth (obviously if they're clueless tourists I'm going to be forthright on an estimate). However, I never demand payment of any sort in a situation like this, because I take full responsibility for my own amnesia. It's merely a suggested donation, as they say at the museum. I have heard stories of cabdrivers pressing the double rate 4 for enough blocks to make up for the time and distance they covered while the meter was forgetfully unengaged. This is often done on the sly, although the final price of the cab ride comes out to nearly exactly what it would have been if the meter had been initiated normally at the start of the trip. The driver simply didn't want to disturb the passenger with such technicalities. Like I said before, our deeds and sensibilities go largely unnoticed, and are sometimes even reprimanded and criminalized.

There are, however, bad apples among us, as in any industry or group of people. Here's an article about the lousiest and most notorious modern hack alive. His scheme has further ruined our delicate reputation as cabdrivers in a city as harshly judgmental as this.
Lastly, please take a moment to read this short entry by another driver. It sums up and provides perfect examples of how poorly we often get treated by passengers, and for no legitimate reason.

And here's an interesting random fact within the rules of the TLC. It applies whether or not the driver has their off-duty light on!

From Driver Rule 2-50e8 (in PDF):
If the driver has been operating the taxicab for more than eight (8) hours of any continuous twenty-four (24) hour period, then he may refuse to take a passenger to these destinations: Westchester or Nassau County or to Newark Airport.

1 comment:

  1. I just have posted something about this issue on my blog, TLC in fact have blamed 100% of NYC drivers of doing that, only non working hacks were spared out of this.


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