New Penalties for Cabbies Start Today
It's the afternoon rush hour in downtown Chicago. Buses and cars pass by while David Austin waits outside near Union Station. He says it's hard for him to hail a taxi and tries to prove it. A couple of empty cabs pass him up. A couple of others do stop. But Austin says even when he is picked up, some drivers don't always want to take him where he wants to go.
AUSTIN: I was trying to get to the west side. They told me they were fixing to go in. I asked them what was wrong with the west side of Chicago. They said they don't take people to the west side of Chicago.
Refusing to pick up a passenger or refusing to take him to his requested destination are among the many violations that could earn a cabbie a 75 to $1,000 fine. So could discourtesy which Austin says he's also encountered.
AUSTIN: My money is just as better as the next man's money. In order to get a cab ride you have to put the money in the cabby's hand before you leave. That's not fair.
The number of customer complaints about taxi drivers increased nearly 60 percent in 2007. The Department of Consumer Services received more than 11,000 complaints last year and issued over 4,000 citations.
That got Consumer Services Commissioner Norma Reyes thinking it was time for a change. She approved the increase for penalties as a deterrent for bad driving.
REYES: We really do want to have the best taxi industry in the United States if not the world.
Reyes says the complaint process is simple. Frustrated riders call the city's 311 line with the cab number and the date and time of the incident. The complaint is transferred to the Department of Consumer Services.
REYES: We look at the cab drivers background. We look at what type of complaint is. We contact the consumer, the complainant. And we ask them certain questions and what they'd like to see as a result. And again it depends on what it is.
The complaint could continue on to an administrative hearing. Reyes says in most situations, the department tries to resolve the problem before it gets to that point. But it's not just complaints the department relies on as its eyes and ears. Consumer Services does regular taxi inspections, and private investigators are sent out to act as passengers. Reyes says the department also tries to acknowledge good drivers.
REYES: It isn't that we're trying to punish, we're also trying to reward. What we're trying to do is again public safety, courtesy, weed out the bad and acknowledge and support the good.
But cab driver Catalin Ciociu says it isn't always so even handed. He's been driving in Chicago for 3 years. Like many cabbies, Ciociu says the city doesn't listen to the driver's side of the story.
CIOCIU: Our word does not matter at all. So when you go to the city. 'Okay, you want to plead guilty and pay like 150-300-400,' but it's all on somebody's word. Somebody calls actually. There are no facts, no evidence, no witnesses, nothing. For example, if I don't like that guy I can call right now and he will get cited.
Ciociu thinks penalties are needed, but he's not sure the increase is a good idea.
CIOCIU: I've seen a lot of cab drivers. They are not courteous to customers. I've seen it on the street, but probably it depends on the education. I don't think it will change.
Ciociu says more taxi education requirements could be a better way to solve bad driving.
Reyes recognizes that some penalties amount to a day or even a week's worth of wages for some drivers. But she says the new regulations are the department's way of supporting the industry by trying to put the bad taxi owners and drivers out of business.