NO ONE would claim that the capital city has been purged of unlicensed, unscrupulous, unknowledgeable or unsafe taxi drivers, but clearly there has been a change for the better as a result of police crackdowns, higher fines and a willingness of passengers to follow through with complaints. Those faceless hackers in the jalopies must have been more numerous than we thought too: it's harder to get a cab now. But at least when you do, there's a better chance that the driver might really agree to take you where you want to go, at the legal fare and without a lot of unpleasantness. Yet the remaining drivers -- many of whom have been cooperating in the cleanup of their industry -- haven't seen a fare increase in more than two years. They deserve a break. Unlike the members of the D.C. Taxicab Commission -- who pick up $150 for each meeting, regardless of whether they get anywhere -- the city's cabbies have had to work longer and longer just to keep pace with their costs.

The insufficient, interim response from the taxicab commission -- which bombed at a public hearing Tuesday -- was a proposal for a surcharge of 40 cents more a trip no matter what the distance. It would mean a pittance more for drivers and a hard time for any passengers trying for the longer trips. If the commissioners had paid much attention to their own staff, they might have settled on a formula providing a 16 percent increase per cab zone. Whether this percentage is high enough could be argued -- but this approach certainly makes more sense than a surcharge.

Whatever the ultimate numbers turn out to be, the accent should be on something that too many of the commissioners ignore: a prompt decision. As it is, just following all the procedures will take this matter into 1988. The only hope for prodding these turtles-on-stipends rests with a bill introduced in the D.C. Council by member Nadine Winter. It would force the commission's rate panel in the future to act within 45 days or give final authority for setting rates to the full commission. Commission Chairman Arrington Dixon, who has been working hard to instill some sense of duty in certain members of his group, could use this legislative club to reinforce his determination to make the commission act swiftly.

People everywhere who helped clean up the industry -- and in particular people who ride in cabs -- are tired of hearing the excuses of those commission members who prefer meeting to responding.