How often are cabs pulled over? And what for?

The answer is not that simple, but what we found shows cabbies may have a tough road ahead of them.

February 19, 2014

Odette Yousef

Listen to this story on the Curious City podcast, including a debrief with question-asker Dan Monaghan and WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef, at minute 5:53 in the audio above. 

Dan Monaghan bikes and drives and walks a lot in Chicago. He sees a lot on the road that irritates him, especially from cab drivers. But he doesn’t see them getting pulled over all that often. So he wrote in to Curious City with a pretty simple question:

How often are taxis pulled over and what is the most often issued offense they receive?

Or at least it seemed simple when we took it on back in August. We figured a simple data request to the right city department would yield a clear-cut conclusion. But nearly a dozen Freedom of Information requests and six months later, here’s the answer.

We don’t know.

(cue the crickets)

But not all is lost. Because what we did learn on this long, strange trip is interesting in its own right. Our investigation afforded us a rare look inside the world of Chicago taxi drivers, and underlines what could be a tough road ahead – one increasingly riddled with potholes, speed bumps and yes, the occasional ticket from law enforcement.

Fasten your seatbelts, and I'll try to explain.

The data trail

The first surprising thing we learned in tackling this question is that there’s not one department that contains all the data. The city’s Department of Finance has some, the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings has some, the city’s department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has some, and the Circuit Court of Cook County has some too. Each of these required separate (and sometimes multiple) data requests.

In addition, the legal codes that underly the citations don’t match up across departments. For example, there is an offense under the city’s rules for taxi drivers called “reckless driving” (see Rule CH5.08). There’s also a part of the state’s vehicle code about “reckless driving” (Sec. 11-503). But these two things aren’t necessarily identical – and they may not match up with what you, or I, might call “reckless driving,” were we to witness something on the street.

To put a finer point on it, the data we got back from the Circuit Court showed only ten citations written in 2012 to cab drivers for “reckless driving.” But the same data shows 1,433 citations that year for speeding. Some might consider speeding to be reckless driving, but tickets may be written under different parts of the code. Separately, that year the Department of Administrative Hearings shows 996 citations for “unsafe driving” (which, we’ll explain a bit later, may be a vastly underreported figure). But “unsafe driving” under the city code is quite broad. It may include offenses that, under the state rules, would be filed under “reckless driving” and speeding.

This is all to say that even when we do get data, we can’t just pool it all together for analysis. The same offenses may be defined differently, depending on whether you’re looking at city code or state laws, and even those might not match up with what we, in our own minds, may consider to be dangerous conduct!

The known knowns

Most of the violations that taxi drivers get slapped with end up with the City of Chicago, and not with the Circuit Court of Cook County. But let’s dwell on the latter violations for a bit, because the vast majority of them are for moving violations. This is likely what Dan was thinking about when he wondered how often taxis are pulled over: how often do police intervene when they see a taxi doing something wrong?

There were more than 7,300 tickets written to taxis that were adjudicated by the Cook County Circuit Court in 2012. They were written out to about 4,300 different vehicles, but when you dig into it, each of those vehicles might have been used by several different drivers over the course of the year. For example, taxi plate 21188TX racked up the highest number of tickets for moving violations adjudicated by the Cook County Circuit Court in 2012 -- thirteen tickets in all. But those tickets were earned by three different people who drove that car.

Sorting by name doesn’t really help either. According to this data, Mohammed Khan received a ton more tickets than anyone else in this data set – a whopping 27 in one year – but heavens knows how many Mohammed Khans are driving cabs in Chicago. It’s not an uncommon name.

This makes it difficult for us even to give a range of numbers for taxi drivers who saw tickets. But the City of Chicago has about 7,000 cabs, so the number of times cabs would have been written tickets that headed to the Circuit Court would average out at about once per cab in 2012.

Here’s the thing: not all tickets head to the Circuit Court of Cook County. Police may instead cite a violation of the city code instead, which means the ticket would end up going to the Department of Administrative Hearings. In 2012, that department recorded 996 cases of “unsafe driving” for taxis. But this does not necessarily mean they all resulted from a police pulling the vehicle over. Some may have. But many may have resulted instead from a 311 call.

Now, even though Dan asked about how often cabs are “pulled over,” we took a bit of creative license with his inquiry to find out more broadly what the most common tickets and citation were for cabbies. That is to say, not just tickets that resulted from a cop pulling a cab over, but also ones that may have been issued for parking violations, for example.

These are things we know that we know

Parking tickets and red light camera tickets are a big headache for cab drivers in Chicago. The city’s Department of Finance tracks this information and provided us with humongous spreadsheets of all those tickets that were written in 2012. Turns out that year, more than 28,000 tickets were written to cab drivers for parking-related violations. This meshed pretty well with what cabbies told us, and helped us unearth a phenomenon we hadn’t known of: the so-called “fly tickets.”

One driver who explained it to us was Al Smith, who had to file for bankruptcy because of $5,000 in overdue parking tickets alone. Smith noted that over the years, the city has gotten rid of many of its cab stands, eliminating sanctioned places for cabbies to pull into to pick up and drop off passengers. At the same time, Smith contended that the city has become more aggressive in ticketing drivers who pull over in tow zones or other restricted spaces for even brief moments to offload or pick up.

“See this corner we just passed here at Union Station?” he pointed out, “The last space of that cab line is designated a tow zone. But they use it like a weapon.” Smith explained that the city assigned a traffic enforcement agent specifically at that space to catch cab drivers who pull into that spot. “We’re not parked there. We’re just processing there,” he explained. “But if they catch you in that space, they will write you a ticket.”

Many cab drivers complained of similar enforcement, noting that city rules allow cab drivers to pull over in restricted spaces for a few minutes to allow passengers on or off. But often the enforcement officers who write up the tickets do not hand them, in-person, to the drivers. Instead, they are posted in the mail, arriving in drivers’ mailboxes weeks after the offense allegedly occurred. A driver may have picked up and dropped off hundreds of people in the intervening time, and often cannot even recollect where she or he was at the time of the purported offense.

Red light camera tickets accounted for nearly 9,000 tickets to taxi drivers in 2012. That generated at least $843,000 dollars for the city (cha-ching!). Interestingly, there were a couple of taxis that were each issued 14 red light camera tickets that year alone. Does that count as reckless driving? Maybe. But with the automated ticketing system, the city no longer relies on police to pull them over.

There are known unknowns

Aside from the data held by the Circuit Court of Cook County (mostly moving violations) and the Department of Finance (mostly parking and red light cameras), there is also untold amounts of data at the City of Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings. This department keeps track of all citations issued under the city’s Rules and Regulations for public chauffeurs and for medallion owners.

This is where we ran into problems. Despite having data on citations that were issued under those parts of the city code in 2012, the department is incapable of searching their database in useful ways. We submitted multiple requests for data of the top ten violations for taxi drivers in that year. But the department was unable to do this search, and asked us to specify which violations we wanted to know about. Obviously, this is not very helpful.

However, somewhat inexplicably, the department was able to tell us that the top two violations were for “unsafe driving” and “discourteous conduct.” As mentioned earlier, this department adjudicated fewer than 1000 citations for unsafe driving. However, it handled more than 4,000 citations for discourteous conduct.

But let’s complicate this even more. James Mueller once worked for the city, and helped write many of the rules that still govern Chicago’s taxi industry today. After he retired, he briefly used his lawyering skills to help cab drivers fight citations in the city’s Administrative Hearings Court. He told us that this experience was revelatory, because often decisions – on both sides – were not reached according to what made the roads safer, but for what was more expeditious.

Mueller specifically saw this happen with cab drivers who came into the court after being cited for reckless driving. “And the city will tell them on a reckless driving [charge], I would say probably 9 times out of 10, unless the person has a  bad record, ‘if you plead guilty I’ll amend the charge from reckless driving to general simple discourteous conduct and offer a relatively low fine,’” Mueller said.

Often, the cab driver would take the deal, said Mueller, because the penalty for discourteous conduct is a relatively minor fine. On the other hand, if the driver were to be found guilty of reckless driving, he or she would have to go back to public chauffeur training school, undergo a physical exam and get a drug test. At the worst, this risks his or her license, and at best, results in a loss of income for several weeks while they try to get reinstated.

“So a lot of those reckless driving charges, whether they happened or not, get shifted to general discourtesy,” said Mueller. “And that way it’s more efficient for the city to handle all of those cases, you get all these guilty pleas, you get all of this money coming in, and that’s the way it works.”

We asked the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings if they could share data on what the original charges, and what the amended charges were for each of the citations in 2012. It could not provide us with that data. So in the end, the information we received about discourteous conduct and unsafe driving from this source may be completely unreliable.

One thing this could explain, however, is the enormous mismatch between cab complaints called in via 311, and the violations that the city adjudicates. In 2012, the city took about 14,000 calls about taxis. Half of those were to report reckless driving. Fewer than 1,200 were to report a “rude” cab driver. Less than 5 percent of those 311 calls ended up with a case being filed with the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings. It turns out, the vast majority of 311 callers either don’t take note of essential details about the cab that irked them (such as its cab number), or they don’t follow through with filling out an affidavit of the complaint.

Finally, there are also unknown unknowns

On top of the data we requested (and mostly didn’t receive) from the Department of Administrative Hearings, there is a whole spectrum of other violations that a cab driver might receive. Typically, these would be for non-moving violations – things relating to the condition of his or her vehicle, like whether a tail light is out, or whether there are scratches on the vehicle.

This may not be what Dan was originally getting at in his question, but it became apparent in talking to people that these kinds of infractions can add up to significant cost and inconvenience for both drivers and cab owners. On the flip side of that coin, they also can add up to hefty revenue for the city. Unfortunately, the Department of Administrative Hearings was unable to provide us with any data falling under this section of the municipal code.

In sum…

In sum, it sounds like taxi drivers are hit with tickets more than other drivers are – whether they be pulled over by a cop, caught by a red light camera, or later receive a “fly ticket” in the mail. And it’s not just city agents that are keeping an eye on them. They’re subject to scrutiny by other drivers, bikers, and pedestrians who call 311 and can report violations.

The industry, too, has some interest in keeping the worst drivers off the road. Responsible taxi affiliation companies keep track of how safe drivers are, because they don’t want to foot higher insurance premiums for the unsafe ones.

“We have to be at an ultimate – or a heightened – level of awareness a lot of times,” said Smith, the cab driver, “which is stressful.”

But Dan’s question asked for a number – how many times cabs are pulled over. And unfortunately we couldn’t get that for him. Still, we hope this helps lift the veil a bit on the complicated world of taxi rules and code enforcement.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud