Driven Crazy

Keeping tabs on cabs

Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the sidewalk, the cab strike ends. If you listened to most New Yorkers last week, the consensus was that the strike was a big bomb-ola, not only because it was a day late (they chose the first sunny day in over two weeks) but because it was a dollar short (for the cabbies, anyway).

Without missing a beat, Mayor Rudy stepped right in and threatened the striking cabbies with everything from wiping out medallions to getting rid of cabs altogether. For a man who wants to be president, he was pretty naïve not to notice the international implications of unemploying cab drivers. The world was quick to react to the mayor's threats. Immediately upon hearing that thousands of curb-jumping drivers would be coming back to resume their taxi careers in New Delhi, India detonated a bunch of nukes, and Pakistan threatened to do the same. Coincidence? I don't think so. Wake up, Rudy! These weren't bomb tests, they were bomb threats!

In fact, just before pushing the button, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was heard to say, ''Just when I thought it was safe to go back on the sidewalk. . . . '' Rudy, if you don't care about how many regular New Yorkers could get killed, think about how many Yankees they could take out with one A-bomb!

I can understand the mayor's rage. But whose fault is it that taxi riding has become terrifying? Not India's fault. Not Pakistan's fault. Hey--not even the fault of Israel, Botswana, Haiti, or the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia and the USSR. It's not even the drivers' fault. It's all Dr. Ruth's fault! If you had to listen to her 40 times a day, you'd become enraged and jump a curb, too.

How did it get this way? Professional cabbies tell me the Taxi and Limousine Commission imposed so many nitpicky rules and fines that it was easier to give up driving and rent out their cabs. This sounded reasonable until I heard what London drivers go through. In London, you can't drive a Black Taxi unless you have a thorough understanding and love of ''The Knowledge,'' found in a purple book of about 50 pages containing about 22 ''runs'' per page, according to longtime London cabbie Charles Avella. Each run (from one destination to another) is filled with ''points.'' Points are every street, square, police station, theater, cinema, restaurant, famous pub, and site in London.

When they give you the book, the brass at the Hackney Carriage Office (their TLC) tell you to go away for six months. They can do this since they are part of the police department. After six months you have your first test. ''They are constantly testing you for character, as well,'' says Avella. ''They may have a police officer with a very heavy Scots accent quiz you. If you lose your patience because you can't understand him, it shows you have a weak character, and shouldn't ever be driving a taxi.'' You're out. In NYC, you're out when you actually assault someone andrun them over. Well, you're suspended, anyway.

The HCO quizzes potential cabbies over two to three years on The Knowledge.'' By the time they finish, they must know every one of the 1100 or so runs, and the thousands of points contained therein. If they pass The Knowledge test, then and only then will they be allowed to take a taxi drivingtest. A potential driver gets only two--count 'em, two--chances to pass. Fail twice and you are dead (boiled) meat.

It doesn't end there. Drivers are subjected to limitless spontaneous tests by HCO inspectors, who check the cars for cleanliness and safety. A police officer can pull over a London cab at any time and inspect it.

When you think about it, New York's kind of like London--without the tests, the inspections, the book, the Knowledge, the cleanliness, the horns, a basic grasp of directions, or a working knowledge of the English language. But of course, we have Dr. Ruth.

 
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