Fighting Back Against Reckless Taxi Drivers

You're visiting New York, Chicago, San Francisco. You hail a cab. You get in, tell the driver your destination, and off you go.

Chances are, you're probably so happy just to get a taxi that you forget a few things, like fastening your seat belt; looking at the meter; writing down the medallion number of the cab.

Why bother? After all, you may only be traveling a few blocks. But as any accident statistician will tell you, you're asking for trouble if you don't drive - and ride - defensively.

I know, because I was a victim of a reckless New York city taxi driver.

Last July, I hailed a cab one early morning to take the shuttle flight from LaGuardia to Boston. A light rain was falling, as the cab pulled quickly away from the hotel.

As we picked up speed along the East River drive, I asked the driver to slow down. He not only refused, he went faster.

Then, as we approached a tight turn leading to the Triborough Bridge, the cabbie accelerated even more. We began to spin out. I noticed it before the driver did. I shouted at him, but it was too late.

We slammed into the right wall of the highway, bounced off it, then headed straight for a large steel girder center divider. We hit it head-on, flew in the air, spun over and - miraculously - landed right-side up, but parallel to oncoming traffic.

My laptop computer was totaled. My portable printer was smashed. Luckily, no one plowed into us. Just then, a car pulled up. Inside was an off-duty cabbie who offered to take me to the airport.

I wrote down the medallion number of the taxi, said a few less-than-polite words and left.

On the way to the airport, I also took down the name of the taxi-driver witness (a 17-year taxi veteran), now my good Samaritan driver. Then, I noticed my entire right leg was bruised, my pants were torn, and my right knee had swollen to the size of a small football.

But at least I was alive.

Each year in the U.S., there are more than 25,000 taxi accidents. More than 2,000 passengers are injured and require hospitalization. And about three dozen die.

That cab ride to the airport was a nightmare, and I decided to fight back. I went to taxi court.

Most major U.S. cities have a taxi court. In New York, the court at the Taxi and Limousine Commission resembles a scene right out of "Hill Street Blues."

This chaotic convention of humanity and paperwork processes the thousands of complaints filed each year against cab drivers.

Each day, dozens of judges hear cases by angry passengers and police against drivers who allegedly broke the rules - driving recklessly, not stopping for passengers, overcharging them, and in some cases, verbally or physically abusing them.

Three months after filing my complaint, a hearing was scheduled. I presented my case, giving a detailed account of what happened.

The taxi driver came next. He disputed everything I said.

"You know nothing about driving in New York," he claimed. "I am the taxi driver. I know what the driving conditions are. You come from California."

Actually, I'm from New York. I couldn't wait for my turn to cross-examine. I asked him how long he had driven a cab. One year. How long he had been in America. Two years. I then asked the judge if I could introduce an exhibit. He agreed.

I held out my left hand. On my fourth finger was my high school ring - from the Bronx.

"I'm afraid you're mistaken. I've been driving in New York since I was 16. You were speeding in the rain, you didn't slow down, and you know it," I said. "I also have a witness to the accident, another taxi driver."

The judge found the driver guilty of violating rule 106A of the New York Taxi Codes: "A driver shall not operate his taxicab in such manner or at a speed which unreasonably endangers users of other vehicles, pedestrians, or his passengers."

OK, so I won. But the story doesn't end.

My victory at taxi court allowed me to proceed with a civil suit in New York against the driver and his cab company to recover damages.

Without having written down the cab's medallion number at the time of the accident, I could not have made a complaint to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Then there's the area of abuse. "Women are the most likely to get taken advantage of by taxi drivers," says Inspector Raul Rosario. "They think the women won't argue or fight back, and if they do, they threaten them and abuse them."

In 1990, Deborah Norville, then co-host of the "Today" show, filed a successful complaint against a New York taxi driver for cursing and hurling change at her during one wild ride.

Thankfully, many cities are now recognizing the problem - and the need to educate passengers as to their rights. In communities nationwide efforts are being made to improve taxi service and courtesy, not to mention safety.

And there are some drivers who really deliver:

Take the case of cabbie Yousef Abu-Humdeh, who picked up a Polish tourist from a bus terminal in Manhattan.

The tourist spoke no English, so Abu-Humdeh drove him to a police precinct where an interpreter was called in. The tourist was part of an organized tour, but had no idea which hotel was housing his group.

Abu-Humdeh then volunteered to drive Mr. Zozistaw around mid-town Manhattan to see if he recognized the hotel. No luck. Another interpreter was called in, and then it was discovered that the group was actually staying at a hotel in New Jersey.

The cabbie then drove the tourist to New Jersey, and the hotel was found - 9 1/2 hours after Mr. Zozistaw first stepped into the taxi.

Abu-Humdeh refused to accept any money. Mr. Zozistaw wrote down his name and medallion number, and wrote to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which then honored Abu-Humdeh with its Driver Recognition Award.

Copyright, 1992, Los Angeles Times Syndicate Peter S. Greenberg's syndicated column appears occasionally in the Travel section.