Monday, 2 June 2014

An idle hour, worried taxi drivers - and why only the dumbest don't plea bargain

The man looked me up and down and, mistaking my light grey, Brooks Brothers suit for a sign I had an official role at the Taxi and Limousine Commission tribunal, asked me, “Are you the lawyer?”

“No, I’m a witness,” I replied.

A brief, awkward silence ensued.

“You are in favour of the driver?” he asked, in the accent of somewhere in South Asia.

“No,” I said. “The driver tried to assault me, so I’m very much not in favour of the driver.”
 
New York City taxi drivers, before humanisation
The man’s error, I realised during the 90 minutes I spent this past Thursday at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, was an understandable one. We were all at the TLC’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings because of things that had happened somewhere on New York City’s streets. The steady stream of mainly South Asian men that trooped out of the elevators on the 19th floor of the TLC’s building in the Financial District had all, presumably, done something negligent or dangerous that would have infuriated or horrified me if I’d witnessed it. There’s an equally strong chance that, had we encountered each other on the street, we'd have been yelling at each other.

But, as I waited for my moment of courtroom drama, I found myself viewing the drivers, shorn of their yellow cabs or Town Car limousines, differently. They were hard-working immigrants worried about what their day at the tribunal would mean for their livelihoods. Once there was no obvious sign (apart from the pair of pannier bags at my seat) that I was a cyclist, I suddenly turned into someone who might make this bad day better for them. Off the roads, our shared humanity came to the surface.
 
The scene of, if not the crime, at least the breach
of Taxi and Limousine Commission regulations
Not that the reason I was there was touching or reassuring. I was due to attend a hearing over my complaint against a car service driver that I found one night in March blocking a cycle lane at a particularly dangerous junction in downtown Brooklyn. Since he was leaning against the car and there were plenty of legal alternative places to park, I asked him to move. After he angrily refused to do so, I tried to take a picture as evidence for the TLC. That sent him spiralling into a far more intense fury and he not only swore at me and called me a “white devil” but made grabs for both my camera and bike.

When I arrived at the office at 8.50am on Thursday, however, I recognised none of the drivers waiting anxiously for hearings. A short while later, a TLC prosecuting attorney emerged to tell me my driver had so far not turned up. If he hadn’t arrived by 10am, he would be in default and found guilty of all the charges. He apologised for making me wait.
A New York taxi cab in action: quiet professionalism

But I was already growing interested in the transactions I could hear taking place around me.

“OK, so the complaint’s withdrawn,” I heard a TLC official telling a woman I took to be a driver’s lawyer. “So he doesn’t have the points. You just have to make sure he doesn’t get two more points or he’ll get another summons.”

Another driver was standing, head cocked, listening carefully to a TLC attorney.

“This is the offer,” he was being told. “We give you a $300 fine and no points.”
 
There was then some discussion about whether the driver had been given a previous chance to consider the offer, before it became clear that he would accept it.

“If that’s what you want to do, we’ll go in front of the judge and withdraw everything else,” the official told him.

Would you feel like veering left round a limo parked
at this intersection? One evening back in March, I didn't.
The tribunal, I started to realise, seldom dealt in courtroom drama of the To Kill a Mocking Bird kind. I’d carefully taken pictures of the intersection involved to show the judge how dangerous it was to park in that bike lane. But I’d never been likely to get my moment in court. The tribunal dealt instead in the kind of mildly unsatisfactory plea-deal compromise that Maurice Levy would persuade a drug gang’s members to accept in The Wire. The transactional nature of the interactions was such that I even heard someone who seemed to work at the TLC shouting cheerily to someone who appeared to be a driver, “Nice to see you here again!”

My mind went back to my most recent journey in a New York City taxi – my first since I moved permanently to the city nearly two years ago. Arriving at nearly midnight at LaGuardia Airport ten days ago, I opted for a taxi over the late-night vagaries of bus and subway and found myself hurtling at 70mph along the uneven surfaces of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The driver hunched over the wheel of his Ford Escape, a hunted look in his eyes.

It was obviously dangerous driving – he tailgated other vehicles, drove too close to the concrete dividing barriers and generally, I eventually told him, drove like someone who would one day kill another road user. He didn’t seem in any way a bad person, however. He was remarkably calm and receptive once I started fully explaining to him why his driving terrified me. I slightly reduced my tip in line with my previous advice on how to shape taxi driver behaviour. But I couldn’t help wondering how well the endless transactions at the TLC fulfilled the wider goal of persuading drivers like mine to use their vehicles more safely.

Yeah, sure it looks like a clear rule breach
to you. What will it look like after a
plea bargain?
Yet, as my hour ticked by, it became clear I’d got into a row with one of the few for-hire drivers who didn’t understand how to play this game. My driver had been charged with three counts – a parking violation; harassment; and making threats of, or actual use of, physical violence. He faced points on his licence for the parking, a $200 to $1,000 fine for the harassment and a fine of up to $1,500 for the violence element. He could, in theory, face a suspension or revocation of his licence but the prosecutor made it clear the judges didn’t like using that.

Having listened to the other conversations, I’m confident the prosecutors had foreseen a deal dropping the violent element in exchange for guilty pleas to the two other charges. As it turned out, unless the driver can provide a good reason why he didn’t attend, he’s been found guilty of all the charges and could face the maximum penalties.

It was an outcome that initially pleased me. I headed back outside to find the Financial District bathed in bright, warm sunshine I’d been unable to see inside, unlocked my bike and prepared to head back to the office. I remain grateful to the TLC for taking my complaint seriously and acting on it. It’s better than the only previous time I complained to them, when they insisted they couldn’t identify the driver involved based on his licence plate number.

But Beaver St, outside the offices, was packed with cars, their drivers leaning impatiently on their horns. As I headed north towards the Hudson River Greenway, motorists were cutting inside each other, jostling for minuscule advantages with little regard to the danger or inconvenience their behaviour was creating for other people. As I rode home that evening, I once again had to dodge round a for-hire vehicle parked exactly where the driver I encountered had been. I hadn’t the heart to ask him to move.

I’d won one hollow, easy victory in the campaign for more civilised streets. But I got home far from certain the war was being won.

Update, June 10: I've just heard that the driver was indeed found guilty. He will have to pay a $3,050 fine and have four points on his licence.

14 comments:

  1. Invisible Man,
    Nice post. In my 15 years of NYC riding, I have decided to make complaints against TLC drivers only when their behavior is so egregious that I felt threatened by their intended actions to physically harm me; I have made four complaints.

    Each complaint was reduced from the otherwise likely suspension of their license, to a typical $300 and 3 point fine. I have left each hearing, whether in person or over the phone, with a sense that penalties were enacted that were absolutely justified. Often I have felt it should have been worse. Every time I have wished that there was a similar means to produce penalties for regular drivers that also aggressively attempt to cause me harm using their vehicle. This by and far is a greater number than the TLC drivers.

    In that same protocol with the TLC, there is a means to offer a commendation, and I have used that as well. I do not know what the outcome for that is though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hilda,

      Thanks for your comment. It sounds like the penalties in your cases were justified - and should probably have been harsher. I guess I'm just indulging in some liberal hand-wringing about the precise process and how my driver probably ended up with a harsher penalty than the TLC ever seriously intended to propose.

      You're right, however, that it would be great if there were a similar process for other drivers. In London, I'd at least report seriously dangerous and/or negligent driving to the police, in the hope something might happen. In New York, it really doesn't seem worth the bother.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. The only egregious conduct I've ever reported was egregious police actions. Twice. In one case, the management did take action.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve,

      As you'll recall from my last post, I recently encountered a policeman that I would have reported if he hadn't left while I was getting my camera out.

      May you continue to find no cause to report egregious conduct. It's certainly a stressful enough business.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. Good post, interesting look at how the system works (or doesnt).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Do you know when (if ever) you will be informed of the penalties assessed?

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    Replies
    1. Kevin,

      I don't. But I'll try to find out.

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. It may seem like a lost fight to you, but the city is a bit more civilized because people like you care. Without people like yourself, the city is bound to slip into the mayham of the 1980s. It's particularly more credible when the complaints come from a tall guy in a suit with a British accent :)

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your kind words - and forgive my occasional despair.

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. Such an interesting contrast with your previous post's offender...someone sworn to uphold the law acting as if he's above it vs. taxi drivers who may not really fully understand the law, just trying to make a living in a frenetically paced city. It's shocking there aren't more taxi drivers committing assaults. I think it actually says something about their motivation (making a living) vs. the police officer who was just being a jerk because he knew he could get away with it. Keep reporting as necessary -- Anonymous just prior to me is correct. The little skirmishes add up. Lexington & Concord? (oops, bad example to a Brit) ;-) Keep smiling/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. SouthLakes,

      Thank you for your kind words. The TLC's willingness to take action certainly cheered me up after the run-in with the off-duty policeman. But I do wonder if the transactional nature of the plea-deals really gets the safety message across to taxi drivers.

      As for Lexington and Concord, I can assure you I don't take that stuff personally. In the 18th century, some of my ancestors were living in the Scottish Highlands during the period of military rule following the 1745 uprising. I can assure you they will have felt no more sympathy for Redcoats than the same era's residents of the American Colonies.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. I think most of the taxi drivers I've dealt with are from communities (esp. the immigrants) where transactions far outweigh rules...which means that the pain of the transaction has to make learning to follow the rule worthwhile. Sadly, rules that are primarily for the safety of vulnerable users aren't highly respected -- as is evidenced by the light (if any) punishment seen for bicylist-killers across the nation. :-(

      Delete
    3. SouthLakes,

      One issue in Eastern Europe, where I used to live, is that governments had been discredited for so long that it was seen as virtuous to disobey their rules. I think that's probably true in Bangladesh, Pakistan and, to some extent, India. They're all places that produce disproportionate numbers of the US's taxi drivers.

      However, the guy who threatened me seemed, unlike many taxi drivers, to be a US native. I also remember once in London having a conversation with an Eritrean mini-cab driver (the equivalent of a car-service driver in the US) who talked to me spontaneously about the importance of driving considerately of others.

      So I think anyone who's bright enough to get a taxi licence, no matter where they started out, should be capable of learning to drive considerately. I just fear that, for this class of drivers and others, there isn't enough effort being made to improve standards.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete

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