- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — When a cabdriver tried to get Matthew Daus to pay a fare with cash instead of a credit card, Mr. Daus knew that wasn’t right. As the head of the commission that regulates city taxis, he would know.

He also knew there was a bigger problem with drivers not abiding by the rules, judging by the complaints coming into the Taxi and Limousine Commission. So he decided it was time for “Operation: Secret Rider,” an undercover operation in which inspectors take rides around the city to gauge whether drivers are following the rules.

Since last week, between 60 and 100 commission inspectors and police officers have been posing as everyday New Yorkers and tourists and looking for violations of the “Taxi Passengers Bill of Rights.”

That would mean drivers doing things they’re not supposed to — like using cell phones (hands-free or not) while the car is in motion, not taking credit cards for payment or not paying attention to traffic laws.

Although most drivers abide by the rules, “there are always a small number of drivers that deviate or get off the right path,” Mr. Daus said. “This initiative reminds them to get back on.”

There are on average 240 million taxi rides a year, according to the commission. In each of the past two fiscal years, there have been fewer than 20,000 complaints, averaging about 55 a day. The city has more than 13,000 taxis.

Under the program, a driver who refuses to allow a credit card faces a fine of $150 to $350. Using a phone while the cab is in motion or being rude to a passenger carries a fine as well as points violations. Getting too many points within a certain period can lead to a license suspension or revocation.

Mr. Daus said the program also could reward good behavior. Drivers who do well could be considered for the commission’s annual recognition program, which awards things such as free hotel stays and meals to cabbies who perform exceptionally well.

It’s the “slap on the wrist, pat on the back theory,” he said.

While the commission has had efforts in place to monitor cabdriver compliance with issues such as cell phone use, this is the first effort to monitor credit card acceptance.

Credit-card readers have been a recent addition to most cabs. The rules requiring all cabs to have Global Positioning System and video screens that let passengers pay by credit card, check news stories and monitor the location of the cab were met with resistance by some drivers. Nearly 70 percent of New York cabs have had the technology installed so far.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy group, organized two strikes over the issue last year, fearing the equipment could be used to track drivers’ movements, concerns that drivers get stuck paying fees to cover credit card transactions and questions about whether the technology could be trusted to function reliably.

And the organization is not thrilled with the undercover program, saying those issues still exist.

“It’s sneaky, it’s underhanded,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the group. “They’re holding a sword over drivers’ necks.”

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