FOR YEARS, some Washington taxi-cab drivers have gotten away with the infuriating and degrading practice of refusing to stop for blacks or to take people into "unsafe" parts of town. For years, the D.C. government did nothing about it. At first, a fledgling D.C. Taxicab Commission lacked the unity and resources to accomplish much. Meanwhile, the city's human rights officials were more concerned with other forms of discrimination. But finally, all that appears to be changing. Over a period of six weeks -- and intermittently thereafter -- pairs of blacks and whites hired at relatively minor cost to the city will be used to hail cabs and report discrimination to both the Cab Commission and the human rights department -- a major enforcement move.

Because the Cab Commission received more than 700 complaints last year for refusal of service by cabbies, and because few citizens followed up by appearing for hearings, the commission recently boosted fines for a wide range of taxi-cab violations. The hope was to make it more worthwhile for citizens to press complaints. For its part, the city's Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Development decided to broaden its work to include cab discrimination.

Such discrimination occurs in different forms. Some hackers who refuse to accept black riders are black. There are white cab drivers who won't give a ride to other whites if they are traveling to the "wrong" parts of town. Some older cab drivers won't stop for the elderly, who are alleged to be poor tippers.

The 20 people newly hired by the city, at a total cost of $25,000, will file complaints that could result in a $500 fine or suspension or revocation of the hacker's identification card. City human rights officials say they will seek suspensions or revocations of drivers' licenses. In cases of multiple violations by the drivers of certain cab associations, human rights officials say they will work with the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to gain temporary suspensions of the certificate of occupancy on the cab company's place of business.

A separate lawsuit, filed last year by the law firm of Hogan and Hartson and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is scheduled for trial in federal court in November. That effort involved nearly 300 tests using blacks and whites to hail cabs. Three city cab associations -- Empire, D.C. National and American -- are being sued. Now, the D.C. government seems to have joined the fight. It's about time.