YOU KNEW from riding in them that too many of those vehicles painted up and posing as taxicabs were wrecks that couldn't possibly pass city inspection -- and now the secret is out: stolen inspection stickers on those windshields. On Tuesday, area police, who for months have been moving smartly to round up and rout illegal cab operatinos in the city, seized 80 of these vehicles and reported that about 3,000 vehicles stickers had been stolen. Though initial arrests of four men on property charges were later dropped because of a clerical error in the processing of court papers, authorities said yesterday that prosecution will proceed; in addition, 50 drivers were arrested, most of them on charges of receiving stolen property. For safety's sake, the crackdown should continue.

For that matter, a whole range of law-enforcement moves has made life difficult for the scofflaws who have been giving the industry such a bad name in this town. Earlier this year, police issued 110 tickets for as mcuh as $500 and impounded 40 cabs during "Operation Face Lift," designed to get unlicensed drivers off the streets. This week's action, called "Operation Back Alley," was based on a 19-month police investigation. Though some passengers were delayed briefly when the cabs were pulled over at a dozen checkpoints, most were transferred quickly to legal cabs and told reporters they welcomed the move.

They should. If the illegal drivers were menaces, so are the illegal cabs. As police officials noted in a statement, "the use of stolen motor inspection stickers demonstrates a blatant disregard for the safety of the public." But there's still the not-so-slight matter of what happened to all the other inspection stickers that apparently were stolen. With new, better procedures for making complaints, the public can help. Though most of us couldn't recognize a stolen sticker, the conditions in many of the cabs sporting these stickers tell the story -- and authorities should hear it too.