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I Drive SF: Driving for Hire and the Illusion of Safety

san-francisco-cab-polk-street-window

Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know what you’re thinking.  Another stupid taxi article.  Who gives a shit, right?  Cab drivers are all assholes.  They won’t take you to the Sunset or Richmond districts.  So fuck them. They refuse to accept credit cards.  Rotten scumbags.  What about their smelly cabs?  The horrible driving?  Not speaking English?  The way they never show up when you call?  Taxis are despicable and obsolete.  They should go the way of the VCR, the rotary phone and the typewriter.  The sooner the entire corrupt industry dies, the better.  Am I right?  Or am I right?

Well, it seems criminals couldn’t agree more.

Last week, a fellow National cab driver was assaulted on Market Street.  It happened around midnight. The assailant didn’t even ask for money, just started wailing on the driver’s head with a padlock.  When the guy realized robbing a cab wasn’t as easy as he thought, he ran into the Civic Center BART station and disappeared.

A couple local news outlets picked up the story.  Both reports connected this assault to another incident two months ago in Daly City, where a cab driver was attacked by a passenger who refused to pay the fare.

On Sunday, a DeSoto cab driver faced a similar situation.  After taking two guys from the Mission to Oakland, they refused to pay.  When the driver insisted, they beat him up.  And then stole his cab.  He spent nine hours in the hospital.

Last Saturday, two guys punched and robbed a Daly City taxi driver.

In each of these cases, the on-board cameras recorded the attacks and captured images of the assailants, but no arrests have been made.

As a new cab driver, I adhere to the principle that taxi driving is an inclusive public service, even though maintaining an open door policy exposes me to certain occupational hazards.  I know the chances of getting robbed or attacked are slim, but the fear still lurks deep in the recesses of my lizard brain.

In taxi school, they tell you personal safety comes first.  If you get a bad feeling about a potential fare, trust your instinct and drive away.  Since you only have a few seconds to evaluate possible danger, the ocular pat down is inherently flawed.

Now that I’ve been driving a few months, I’m more concerned with passengers jamming me up with multiple stops and special requests, like hitting the Jack-in-the Box drive-thru at 2am.  But I still get the heebie-jeebies on some rides.

One of the arguments for Uber and Lyft is they’re safer than taxis because the technology connecting drivers and passengers reduces anonymity.  While it’s true that when I was driving for Uber and Lyft I never worried about dangerous passengers—beyond pukers or overly entitled douchebags—I only dealt with one segment of the city’s population.  Peer-to-peer economies are exclusionary by definition. Unlike taxis, which are a public utility like buses, rideshare services only cater to people who use smart phones and credit cards and don’t mind their activity being tracked by a private company.

Even though most criminal activity that occurs in Uber cars is directed at passengers, what with the multitude of rapes and assaults, including the latest attempt by an Uber driver to burglarize the house of a woman he’d just dropped off at the airport, Uber drivers occasionally get attacked too.

A few weeks ago a cop berated an Uber driver in New York.  Multiple news outlets across the country picked up the story.  Due to the national outrage, the officer was suspended, stripped of his badge and demoted.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of active Uber accounts being sold on the black market for as little as one dollar.

So perhaps the greatest occupational hazard of driving a cab isn’t violent passengers.  Maybe it’s the general apathy of the public towards cab driving.  Cause, you know, who gives a damn about taxis and their filthy drivers?

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Kelly Dessaint - Will Drive for Food

Kelly Dessaint - Will Drive for Food

Former Uber/Lyft driver turned taxi driver... In my real life, I'm the publisher of the personal narrative zine Piltdownlad, founder of Phony Lid Books and author of the novel A Masque of Infamy and the forthcoming memoir No Fun: How Punk Rock Saved My Life.

  • Carol Osorio

    I love your articles Kelly. It is really interesting, from a cab drivers point of view, watching your cab driver evolution…. People just don’t realize the many complex contributing factors that over years had made drivers the way they were. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for drivers, or anyone, to learn to, even more difficult to put into practice, compartmentalizing!! Passengers should only experience a good ride and maybe your schtick. Unless they are a problem then pull out the required persona, put them in check, and put it back away for the next person…..

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  • Don Anderson

    Another great article. One thing I’ve learned is that a lot of attacks on cabdrivers are not motivated by money. After all, cabdrivers don’t carry a lot of it, certainly not enough for a rational person to risk prison for. Having seen the video of the cab attack with the padlock, my feeling is that the passenger was simply nuts, or high. He was maybe half the size of the driver and his padlock-wailing technique needs some serious practice.

    There was another example a few years ago of a guy who robbed cabs five different times, despite the cameras. He was eventually caught, and went to prison. His take? Less than he would have made driving a cab for five nights. This is irrational behavior.

    Add to this the attacks on Uber drivers who aren’t carrying cash (supposedly) and are tracking you through the app. I suspect a lot of anti-cabdriver violence is motivated, or at least enabled, by that same stereotype you are talking about. The cabdriver is a sort of “unclean outsider” who weak people can dump their own shame and bitterness on. Your only real protection is your crazy radar.

  • One of the most interesting cab fares I’ve picked up so far was a retired NYPD homicide detective who hailed me on Castro. As I drove him to Glen Park, he told me about a case he worked back in the 70s. Taxi drivers were getting robbed and murdered. It had become an epidemic. So he and his partner went undercover as drivers. For several months, they drove around Manhattan, picking up fares. An unmarked police car followed close behind. In the event of trouble, he could signal backup with a light attached to the outside of the cab. He also had his service revolver, of course. Eventually, they foiled enough would-be attacks and word spread along the criminal grapevine that cops were posing as taxi drivers, so the murders stopped entirely. I’m sure he told this story to every cab driver who’d picked him up since. It was scary to think about but also reassuring that the police actually gave a damn about taxis.

  • schmoj

    Sorry, but no. My friend is black and can NEVER get a cab on the street. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. The only way he get anywhere is via Uber. I’m no fan of Uber or Lyft either, but SF cab drivers have done themselves no favors.

  • Sorry? I don’t know what’s more racist about your comment: that you need to publicly state you have a black friend or the multitude of African-American, West African, Eritrean and Ethiopian taxi drivers who “NEVER” picked up your friend. Obviously something is going on here that you do not understand and you should probably shut the fuck up. Yeah.

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