- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

As a native Washingtonian, I’ve been hailing city cabs for as long as I can remember.

But never has a ride raised my blood pressure so fast and furious, nor ultimately cost me more than $110.

Several weeks ago, however, I was mistreated to a tumultuous trip that ended with a near-miss accident, a heated altercation, a lost cell phone, a missed appointment and an otherwise gorgeous day ruined all because an inhospitable hacker refused to drop me off in front of Union Station, my stated destination.

To add insult to injury, when I pulled out my reporter’s notebook and insisted he show me his concealed cabbie’s license so I could file a formal complaint with the D.C. Taxicab Commission, he shouted, “Go ahead. They cannot do nothing to me.”

Based on a critical report released by the Equal Rights Center by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the Hogan and Hartson law firm last week, that impolite immigrant cabbie may just be right. The study indicated that despite years of litigation and legislation, racial discrimination is still a major problem for D.C. taxi riders. Thousands of townies and tourists are denied rides, either because they are black or live or want to travel to black neighborhoods.

“Refusal to haul,” incorporating pickup as well as drop-off points, is the major complaint riders make. The report criticizes the taxicab commission for failure to mete out stricter sanctions and better inspect, monitor and regulate violators in the industry of 6,500 cabs and more than 7,000 drivers.

Lee Williams, chairman of the Taxicab Commission, acknowledged some of the study findings are correct, but yesterday said, “We continue to do more to improve this industry in D.C.” Experience has taught me a few tricks about getting discriminating D.C. hacks to pick me up, given that I am black, female and never toting a legal-size briefcase.

Knowing on which side of the street to stand — never facing Southeast — used to work well. Now, with more drivers seemingly unwilling to pick up blacks, I head straight for the nearest downtown hotel and let the bellman blow the whistle for me.

Which is what I did on this particular day. I had been walking all over town in sensible heels when my feet started talking to me. That is why I hailed a cab in the first place. So I was not in the mood when the cantankerous cabbie insisted on dropping me off on a street corner because apparently he didn’t want to get caught up any further in rush-hour traffic. What should have been a fast $5 fare from the J.W. Marriott to Union Station became a jostling journey to the Outer Limits that forced me to fork over an additional $105 to replace my cell phone and pay additional parking fees and a missed-appointment fee.

Being armed with the driver’s pertinent information — Addeffersen Kifle, No. 65034, Cab No. 393 — also proved to be useless when I called the Empire Cab Co., seeking redress and assistance in retrieving my belongings. The dispatcher, after placing me on interminable hold several times, refused to take a message and gave me a number where no one answered.

Mr. Williams assures me that in the three years he has been on the commission, it has been “moving to zero tolerance.” They now have inspectors, and he intends to streamline the complaint process and seek more suspensions and license revocations, especially for frequent violators “to stop the revolving door of just paying a fine.”

A former law-enforcement officer with a hands-on approach, Mr. Williams said, “I’m not one to sit behind a desk. I go out, and when I find a problem, I call the inspectors and we take care of it.” He added that drivers need “training, training and more training.”

Asked if limiting the number of licenses issued — as is the practice in other big cities, such as New York, where hard-to-get medallions are necessary for cabbies — would be helpful, Mr. Williams said the District has “an open system,” but anytime someone is invested in something of his own, he tends to be more accountable.

Perhaps the commission or the D.C. Council should revisit the issue of limiting licenses. It might, at the very least, create an atmosphere of stricter regulation.

As for driver’s fear of picking up suspicious passengers, Mr. Williams said, “I tell them that they can never determine who the stickup guy is going to be just by looking at them. It’s impossible.” He noted that cabbies are now required to install at least one safety device, either a radio, outside safety light or plastic partition, to reduce harm.

Remember this tip: Just get in a cab if the driver deigns to stop. Drivers are not allowed to refuse to take you where you want to go once you’re safely seated inside the cab. Even that little trick didn’t help Bryan Greene, a D.C. resident and Housing and Urban Development official, who reportedly settled a discrimination lawsuit with Your Way cab service after one of its drivers refused to pick him up at a L’Enfant Plaza hotel in 2000 because he is black.

A friend, who frequently pays $6.90 for a two-zone ride from her Northwest home, voiced her frustration with cabbies who not only overcharge but don’t know the city. She was taken to the Jefferson Memorial when she asked to go to the Lincoln Memorial last month. “When you’re paying your money, all you want is to reach your destination. If [cabbies] can’t get you there, or they don’t know where they’re going, then they do not need to have a cab driver’s license.” She strongly suggests, and I strongly concur, that the riding public needs to file more complaints with the Taxicab Commission to curtail this discriminatory cabbie craziness.

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