Just bring up the subject of D.C. taxicabs and nearly everyone seems prepared to swap stories.
They talk of cabdrivers who refuse fares to some areas of the city and drivers who overcharge. Some allege that race is a factor in getting a ride, and many complain about having had to direct drivers explicitly to such D.C. landmarks as the Washington Monument and the Supreme Court.
The subject touches a nerve in this city.
And, whether their complaint is the failure to transport (the most common) or a driver's ignorance of the city, cabbies and consumers alike are increasingly blaming foreign-born drivers whose ranks, according to industry spokesmen, have increased substantially in recent years.
Convinced that too many District residents and visitors encounter cabdrivers who know too little about the city or are unable to communicate with passengers because of limited English, H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) introduced a bill aimed at eliminating those problems. The bill has received a tremendous response from District residents.
More than 60 persons have signed up to testify today at hearings to be held by the council's Public Works Committee at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. The witness list includes two national organizations. One, called U.S. English, wants to preserve English as the nation's official language, and the other, the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), advocates stricter immigration controls to protect American workers from foreigners who are seeking jobs.
Crawford's bill would limit the number of cabdrivers to 10,500. But the council member said he is already having second thoughts about this provision. He said he was targeting students who apply for part-time permits and drive on a full-time basis, but he has been told that the proposed limit would hurt people who rely on cabs for a second income.
The bill would require hacker's license applicants to pass a 50-question multiple-choice examination that would test their knowledge of taxicab regulations and the area, and to take a five-question written test that would force applicants to demonstrate a knowledge of English and the city.
In addition, hacker's licenses would be issued only to U.S. citizens, aliens who are permanent residents, aliens granted asylum or permanent refugee status or aliens granted permission for full-time employment.
In the past few years, from 12 to 14 cab companies have been started by foreign-born business persons who employ large numbers of foreign drivers, according to managers for some of the companies. Those managers agree that the industry has problems but strongly disagree that the foreign drivers created them.
"If they are attributing the problem to the foreign-born, that seems to me to be discrimination," said Paul Chadha, a shareholder and manager of Mayflower Cab Co., where about 65 percent of the drivers are foreign-born. "What do they want the foreign-born to do? Leave the country or be on welfare . . . . The majority of the foreign-born are citizens here or permanent residents. They feel this is their home and are not out to create any trouble for the city or the country."
There are 9,604 licensed cabs in the city and 11,000 licensed drivers, according to Tom Martin, chief of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles customer service division. Martin said that the hacker's test includes a 25-question, multiple-choice test and that the failure rate on the test is 84 percent. Of the 4,048 applicants who took the hacker's test between January and June, 3,376 of them failed, Martin said.
Fred Denby, the executive director of the 362-member Professional Cab Drivers Association, said that the Crawford's bill could have a major impact because it would limit the number of drivers and crack down on foreign student drivers.
In addition to making it difficult for American drivers to earn a living, Denby charged, some foreign drivers exhibit racist attitudes by refusing to transport black people. He also said that some demonstrate a preference for money over professionalism by declining to transport people to some areas, particularly Southeast Washington.
"I don't mean to sound like a bigot or anything, but there has to be a limitation on the number of drivers," said Denby, who is black. "If it just continues to be a loosely run operation, then it the industry is going to collapse from a service standpoint."
Yvette D. Caesar, an attorney, sent Crawford a copy of a complaint that she filed regarding a dispute with a foreign-born cab driver over a $1.70 fare.
"Suddenly, he started yelling and screaming at me," Caesar wrote in the complaint, "at which time he stated: 'That's why we don't like picking you black people up.'
"I immediately replied: 'You have a lot of nerve saying such a rude, racist remark, particularly since you are black yourself, unless there's something you know that I don't know."
But foreign-born owners of local cab companies argue that the real hostility toward foreign drivers is not over the drivers' attitudes but over dividing the industry's economic pie.
Ved Gupta, who opened the National Cab Co. in the District about two years ago, has 200 drivers, 90 percent of whom are foreignborn.
"Two years ago the cab companies here were nearly 100 percent American-owned," said Gupta. "Now that the foreign-born cab owner's business is wider, the big companies are lobbying to do something about the foreign-born."
If some foreigners are causing the problem, Gupta said, he would agree that the hacker's test should be made harder in order to weed out the ones who do not know the city.
But some American cab drivers readily admit that the test is already difficult and that foreigners, particularly students, appear to be doing a better job at passing the test than local residents.