Fare Game

Cab Drivers Face a Cell Block

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and cabbie Bakhshish Singh is trying to settle a family dispute as he weaves in and out of traffic on Seventh Avenue. Pausing only to let out a young couple and pick up the next fare, Singh is on his cell phone, dealing with sibling rivalry at home. "My wife called me because my girls were fighting," he says as he hangs up.

Singh is one of many drivers who would be affected by the Taxi and Limousine Commission's recently proposed ruling to prevent cabbies from having cell-phone conversations unless their cars are pulled over. The plan— currently being drafted for a hearing in May— is a bid to improve public safety, according to Allan Fromberg, TLC deputy commissioner for public affairs. "You can't give 100 percent of your attention to driving if you're making or receiving phone calls," Fromberg says. "Complaints have gone up from passengers who say, 'I don't feel safe.' "

Some cabbies argue that talking on their cell phones doesn't interfere with their jobs. "It's not fair," says Zhorik Yusupov, who's been driving a yellow cab for four years. "This phone is my life," he says as he puts a caller on hold and turns onto Third Avenue. Like Singh, he uses the cellular mostly for parenting. "When my kids don't listen to my wife I try to fix the situation," he says.

On Houston and Broadway, Alexander Ivanenko is ready to start his 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift. He agrees that a lot of cabbies are constantly on the phone, especially at night and on weekends, when most services offer free calls. But unlike those drivers who spend time chatting, Ivanenko has found a way to profit from his cellular. He has a roster of regular customers who can easily reach him at any time. "It's about $50 extra a day that I make thanks to this phone," he says, flipping out a business card that reads "Yellow Cab— Fast, Cheap, Reliable!"

Another driver, Mohammed Farud, says he doesn't want to worry about sharing the road with distracted cabbies. "If they keep having accidents they'll make more problems for the rest of us. Drivers are also losing fares because they're busy on the phone. Customers feel uncomfortable because many times you're talking in your own language."

David Pollack, chief operations officer for the League of Mutual Taxi Owners, believes that the TLC plan would not only result in fewer accidents and lower insurance premiums but also improve client relations. "When I drove it was a learning experience," says Pollack, who was what he calls a "career driver" for 10 years. "You learn about the world through conversation. How else can we be the golden ambassadors of New York if we can't talk to tourists because we're busy on the phone?"

Still, some cab drivers say they rely on their cellulars only for emergencies— a claim that will be put to the test soon. The TLC is currently trying out a pilot program called Cabwatch which would supply cabbies with 911-only wireless telephones and train them for what constitutes an emergency. The program has proven successful with 50 volunteers and is ready to expand, says Fromberg, who stresses that, as with the proposed rule, the driver would have to pull over and stop to place a call.

Cabwatch should come as good news to cabbie Teklu Woldenmichael, who works at night. "It's a risky business," he says. Unfortunately for him, until the program expands, he doesn't have many options. If he runs into trouble he'll have to rely on public telephones. "I applied four months ago" for a cellular phone, he says. "I wasn't approved."

 
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