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June 2010

I write this column just a few short hours after the TLC’s release of the results of an exhaustive review of data that revealed to us, finally, how many drivers truly abused the system and overcharged passengers using “rate code 4”, and how many were seemingly unintentional mishaps.

Starting at the end of the story, I am pleased to note my belief that this problem is over and done with for several reasons.  Considering the existence of a technological fix to this problem in the form of an “alert screen” in all taxicabs that will immediately let passengers know when rate code 4 (the doubled, out-of-town rate of fare), some may find it surprising to know that my confidence in this problem’s end is not at all technological in nature.  In fact, it is my strong sense that the people most outraged at the thought of habitual rate code 4 abusers are those drivers who make up the bulk of the industry….the ones who work hard and take pride in their professionalism and integrity.  While the TLC may implement new customer service enhancing, labor-saving technology time and again, it is these very human drivers that, in my mind, will ensure an end to this sad chapter in history, because it is they who so unfairly paid the price for their brothers’ and sisters’ greed.

So, even as we are enjoying the “good news” that this problem has been solved and prevented to the extent possible going forward, it is tempered by its counterpoint that 21,819 taxicab drivers overcharged passengers a total of 286,000 times – out of 361 million total trips during that time period, for a total estimated overcharge of almost $1.1 million.  We believe that most of the drivers, 13,315 out of 21,819 total, engaged in overcharging just one or two times, but we know for a fact that some drivers engaged in 1,000 or more overcharges.

We are beginning our enforcement efforts by sending notices to the first 100 or so drivers from the “elite” group of 633 drivers who were seen to have used rate code 4 to overcharge their passengers more than 50 times.  These notices will let them know that the TLC is commencing revocation proceedings with the goal of removing them from the ranks of the taxicab industry…..a privilege they no longer deserve.  A larger group of about 1,700 drivers will face significant fines – between $1,000 and $5,000 -- for their mistakes, but once they have learned their lesson, they will be allowed to keep their licenses.  Drivers with less than 10 overcharges will be reviewed on a case by case basis.
While I cannot speak to the specific actions that will be taken, the most egregious offenders face the result of separate investigations commenced by the NYC Department of Investigations and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The major taxicab industry organizations are helping the TLC to get the message out about the serious ramifications of meter-based passenger abuses, and most immediately will assist by posting large signs in all fleet garages and public drivers areas that explain precisely what drivers risk by cheating their passengers.

By all accounts, this was a sad chapter in taxicab industry history.  In the name of transparency, the public were alerted to worst case projections that turned out to be somewhat smaller than the reality by about $7 million in overcharges (while still exceeding $1 million).  This led to some provocative media coverage, which continued when the previous TLC commissioner testified that a small slice of data appeared to suggest that the numbers were indeed smaller than we had initially projected, leading to equally provocative responses from the industry.  The proof in the pudding, however, was that a fairly significant number of drivers did this repeatedly and seemingly intentionally……a number of drivers significant enough to prevent any person or group from claiming any kind of victory or vindication in the numbers.

The takeaway, for me at least, is that the scope of this problem was such to allow me to say to the riding public with all sincerity that they should feel absolutely confident in riding New York taxicabs.  As pleased as I am, however, that the vast majority of drivers are professionals of the caliber we all expect them to be, the fact that we are talking about hundreds of major offenders in a town where one or two are enough to land on the cover of a daily newspaper is a disappointment that I think I share with at least some others.  In my experience, though, disappointment sometimes provides powerful fuel for change….and I remain excited about the things we can accomplish together going forward.

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