This summer we have seen both some very hot and some very cool days, and I would like to wish everyone the best as we get ready for our transition to Fall and the increased business our for-hire industries anxiously await. As a transitional column, this is actually an appropriate time to discuss a new TLC enforcement initiative to address the issue of illegal cell phone use by both medallion taxicab and for-hire vehicle drivers.
Take a step back in time for a moment to 1998, when the TLC was being inundated with complaints about taxi drivers talking on their cell phones while driving. When I say inundated, there were literally hundreds of complaints each week. At that time, there also were scholarly studies conducted in California and Canada concluding that driving while talking on a cell phone was dangerous. A particular phrase from one of those studies stands out in my mind – “It’s not what you do with your hands, it’s what you do with your MIND!” As a result, on May 20, 1999, the TLC’s Board of Commissioners voted to ban the use of cell phones by our licensed drivers while driving – both “hands-free” and “hand-held” phones. The TLC was the first regulatory body anywhere to prohibit the use of wireless telephones while driving – and with the exception of Brooklyn, Ohio, very few municipalities or states had passed any similar bans at the time. Since then, cell phone bans have been enacted in many states and municipalities, including New York, and the TLC was consulted for guidance by many government colleagues prior to the drafting of their laws.
In addition to safety concerns, the TLC passed these rules because drivers talking on cell phones strike at the very core of customer service. In a professional industry where passengers are paying a premium price for transportation, it is just bad business to not devote your full attention to both the road and the passenger’s needs. For example, think about how you would feel waiting in line at a bank or as a passenger on a bus if the bank teller or bus driver were talking on a cell phone. Not only would you feel psychologically unsettled or concerned about your safety on the bus, you would be downright annoyed while you continue to wait on line as the bank teller chats away on the phone.
So, here we are, seven years after these common sense regulations were passed, and the TLC continues to receive complaints from passengers that drivers are breaking the law. The technology has changed and evolved to include elaborate hands-free devices and even “Bluetooth” earpieces that are virtually undetectable, presenting challenges to our law enforcement efforts. The difficulty in our officers being able to detect violations has led to our new undercover enforcement operation. The bottom line is that drivers will have no idea whether their next passenger is a “regular passenger” or a TLC officer whose job it is to both observe and take action if needed. If drivers pass this “test” - and we are hopeful that most will - they may even receive a monetary tip; but if they do not pass, they will instead receive a summons which carries a $200 fine and 2 points upon conviction.
But let’s reflect for a moment on what this issue is all about, and why it is a problem in the first place. There is no doubt in my mind that driving a taxicab or for-hire vehicle could sometimes be a lonely and difficult profession. The voice of a friend or a loved one can ease that loneliness, and warm the streets of our city even on the coldest and darkest of nights. I understand this and know there are many wireless plans out there that offer free nights and weekends (with unlimited talk between plan members), and that many drivers have a very short window of time to talk to family members who live abroad due to geographic time differences. But on the other hand, we have a reputation to uphold. With all the strides we have made in the last decade to become a safer, more professional and healthier industry - where drivers are more respected and there is more passenger confidence than ever before in the service provided. However, the cell phone issue has the potential to alter public perception in a negative way and undo all the work we have done together. In my view, this has already begun to happen, and every driver who violates the cell phone rule is another chip away at the stone.
I am not happy about having to turn to increased enforcement to accomplish this result, but our job at the TLC is to ensure your safety and that of your passengers, other motorists and pedestrians, as well as to strive to achieve delivery of the best possible customer service. That is why I am appealing to all of you on a personal level to help stop this practice once and for all. Although it may be slightly inconvenient – the answer is very simple – just “pull-over to the side of the road” in-between trips or during your meal or break-time to make the phone call. It may save lives – including your own!