Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
New York, NY —
Last week the city revealed that it believed the majority of licensed taxi drivers have been involved in a scheme to overcharge passengers. More than 35,000 drivers were accused of charging in-town passengers an out-of-town rate. But taxi drivers are crying foul, saying they've been tarred with too broad a brush.
Word of the widespread scam first emerged last Friday, on Mayor Bloomberg's radio show.
"Some of the drivers were setting their meters to [the] out-of-town rate," the mayor said. "Well, someone in the back seat doesn't notice this."
The Taxi and Limousine Commission sent details by e-mail. The Commission charged that price inflating lasting 26 months could have involved more than 35,000 drivers. That's out of the city's roughly 48,000 licensed hacks. The TLC said a few thousand perpetrated the scam repeatedly.
But in a sea of yellow cabs, waiting in three different lanes to pick up passengers at a La Guardia airport taxi stand, drivers this week were throwing their hands up in disbelief.
"Maybe in a thousand, one or two drivers, they may do it. It may have happened, but believe me, the majority of the drivers are hard-working, honest people," says 24-year driver Mohammed Khan. He says nearly every driver is being accused by the city of being a crook.
"It makes me feel terrible, it makes me feel like someone is calling me a thief and I'm not," he says. "It really -- it upsets me."
Driver Sammi Medgahed says he's goofed and pushed the rate 4 button, which is the out-of-town rate, instead of printing a receipt.
"It will come up on the receipt as Nassau, which is 4. Doesn't mean I overcharged. Just a mistake -- a human being can make a mistake driving 10 hours."
A few cars away, seven-year driver Sandeep Kaushal demonstrates how close together the long line of buttons on his taxi meter are.
"Once I turn on the meter I have to press 5 to make sure it is reset ... instead of pressing 5 if I press 4, the rate will change. It is really like a small difference."
He says once rate 4 is activated it will stay on the electronic trip sheet even if he informs his customer about the mistake.
Lately, customers have been looking at him differently.
"I pick up the passenger, I turn on the meter, and she say why is your meter running fast?," he says. "She was like thinking that every driver was the same way...as a good driver we get a bad rap."
There's still a lot of bad blood between drivers and the TLC about the GPS systems installed in cars two years ago.
A new alert screen will notify taxi passengers when an out-of-town rate has been set.
The city is lauding the technology for helping them uncover the overcharging scheme. But Taxi Workers Alliance's Bhairavi Desai says the technology is the problem.
"The only thing in common -- the trips varied, the drivers varied, the vehicles varied, the only thing in common here are the meter and the technology. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it's the common element that could be the cause."
Desai says her group is looking into legal options and says the city hasn't provided any proof of the crimes. She's calling for an independent inquiry.
WNYC sent the Taxi and Limousine Commission a list of questions raised by the drivers, including how easy it is to press the wrong button on the meters and about the technology itself -- but the agency did not respond.
The city Department of Investigation says the most egregious offenders may face criminal charges.
The city has announced that more than 5,000 cabs have been equipped with a warning system that will alert passengers that the out-of-town rate has been switched on. The rest of the more than 13,000 taxis should be outfitted over the next several days.