Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Women make the 'vast majority' of D.C. taxicab complaints

February 6, 2012 - 01:12 PM
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(Photo: flickr/helloturkeytoe)

During last week's D.C. Council taxi hearing, Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton shared one revealing and troubling statistic in his opening statements — the D.C. Taxicab Commission receives about 130 complaints a month, "the vast majority" of them from women.

"Women do not feel safe late at night," Linton told the D.C. Council. "This will not be tolerated."

Complaints against our city's taxicab drivers are everywhere. At the hearing itself, Councilmember Muriel Bowser raised the issue of why residents of Ward 4 can't receive taxicabs. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who heads the transportation committee, called the service's perception "mediocre and unreliable." In her taxicab survey of more than 4,000 D.C. area residents, 76% rated our taxi service as "poor or fair" and 69% see the service as worse than other American cities and insist drivers need better training. Look to the community for specific complaints. Some people feel vilified and mischarged. Some feel discriminated against. At 2:30 a.m. in mid-January, a woman named Shikha took her concerns to the New Hill East community listserv.

"I am so sick and tired of D.C. taxi drivers putting a damper on an otherwise lovely night out in the city," Shikha wrote. "Although tonight I was lucky that I actually found a cab, my taxi driver just told me he was doing me a favor by taking me from Cleveland Park to my place on 18th & A SE ... But we as residents, especially in this area, seem to be helpless. Is there anything that can be done or is being done to keep these crooks, er, I mean cabs in check?"

Others voice graver concerns concerning harassment and sexual assault. In New York City, a service called RightRides has emerged to transport women and people who identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender out of concern for their safety, and based on some local complaints I've reviewed, I would understand a demand for similar service in D.C. 

"A couple of weekends ago, I was molested by a cab driver and have since contacted the police," a local woman wrote last fall on the gossip and entertainment site The Dirty about a ride with an established District cab company. "[The driver] acted like we were lost and asked me to get into the front seat to help him find my place. The next thing you know, I’m being felt-up by this pervert. This is a warning to any females who consider calling a cab as safe ride home."

In the comments section, another woman relayed a similar experience about a ride home from D.C. to Arlington when she was, as she described it, "FAR too drunk." She experienced a shocking discovery as she drifted back into consciousness: "[The driver, a man in his 20s] had his hand in my shirt and was touching my breast under my bra. He had never even turned on the meter."

A third woman shared her experience about a drunken cab ride from D.C. to Alexandria: "[The driver, in his late 30s] ended up just pulling over (once he dropped off the other passengers) and getting completely on top of me and trying to kiss me and feeling me up. I started crying and begging him to stop and to take me home. I should’ve just jumped out of the car since we were stopped but… Anyways, we got to my apartment and he pulled over and started following me so I just ran. I never saw the cab number."

Over at Prince of Petworth, yet another D.C. woman shared a haunting encounter with a D.C. cab driver in early August from last year: "He starts yelling at me. Calling me a stupid bitch and an ugly whore. I was quite afraid, and asked him to pull into the gas station. I pick up my phone to call 911, and he starts screaming, saying this is going to get ugly and he’s going to fuck me up if I’m calling the cops."

These are chilling anecdotes and shed light on the numbers Linton cited last week. They amount to an egregious violation and should never, no matter what circumstances, be tolerated.

D.C. cab drivers have their own challenge in transporting the District's many thousands of residents. We have about 8,500 taxi drivers in the city and they, particularly on the weekend, have to contend with a lot of drunk, confused passengers who don't always know where they're going, don't behave responsibly, and may attempt to duck their cab fares. These complaints are significant but only make up a fraction of the countless rides happening out there, and we shouldn't conflate the horrifying actions of these few with the whole of the industry. The drivers I've observed at many different hearings tend to feel unfairly persecuted as it is. Many drivers insist they're family men trying to make a living, and Linton has defended them in these very terms.

As part of the D.C. Council's proposed legislative overhaul of our taxicab industry, cab drivers will receive additional training, which may help reduce these few disturbing incidents that women have shared. As Linton explained to the Council when describing the courses for new driver applicants and refresher courses for current drivers, he wants the 8,500 transportation workers to know the city, to ensure the "validity of their driver capabilities," for the drivers to become "fonts of wisdom to the people who are visiting D.C.," and he plans to test to make sure drivers receive the lessons. Perhaps this will help prevent the 130 monthly complaints against the industry and permit safe passage for all our District's residents, regardless of gender, race, and ward. The legislation also includes a passenger alert button in the backseat, although Linton says that's more for calling hack inspectors over charging matters than for any security emergency.

For now, incidents like those above — all shared over the last six months — contribute to the perception that taxis aren't always safe and add to the mounting frustration against the industry. It's a shame to recall how divided the city government seemed when articulating and debating its taxi modernization goals a week ago. Will the legislation even move forward with so much dissension over how to advance it? Discouraging. In the meantime, lodge your own complaints and commendations here.

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