The D.C. taxi regulations make clear that a driver who refuses to accept a passenger can be fined. But there's an exception: The rule doesn't apply if the cabbie "has cause to fear injury."
You can be sure that if it is nighttime, and if the prospective passenger is young, male and dressed a certain way, he will fall under that exception. And in a predominantly black city, the chances of that person being anything but black are slim.
Cabbies are not the only ones who fear young men dressed in the tough-guy street look. People don't like to admit that, but the ostrich syndrome has to go. As a public official, and as a black woman who has lived in Ward 8 for more than three decades, I will not stick my head in the sand and pretend that I don't see the reality of our times. Living in this city for all but three or four years of my life, I have seen crime against cabbies escalate. Less than two weeks ago, Beautford Garrett, 56, was fatally shot in the back of the head while driving in Northeast. Police have made no arrests in the case.
I have also seen how difficult it is in some black neighborhoods to find taxi service at all. There was a time, back when we were "colored" and there were fewer cab companies, when the only company that colored people could depend on was Capitol Cab. We all knew its phone number by heart. As we became black, then Afro American, then African American, the number of cab companies operating in the District increased to nearly 100. Now I frequently see Yellow Cab east of the Anacostia River as well. But service to the area has not increased as a percentage of all service. It's still tough to get there by cab, or to find a cab once you're there: African American drivers who live there are also guilty of refusing to haul.
It's easy to understand why. Late at night, if I saw young black men dressed a slovenly way, I wouldn't pick them up, either. And during the day, I'd think twice about it. What do I think about judging people based on dress? It's not right, but it's a reality. Drivers are afraid of gangs of young black males. In all my life I have never seen a gang of young white males in this city.
On the other hand, when cabbies flat-out refuse to pick someone up, not out of fear but for discriminatory reasons--passing up a black person to pick up a white person, or not stopping for someone who "looks like" he might not tip--that's a violation.
But a driver's refusal to take someone is not always a racial issue or an issue of someone's appearance. Sometimes it's a financial issue, and that applies to far Northwest just as much as to far Southeast. Whether a downtown driver goes out to Friendship Heights or to Anacostia, he still has to drive all the way back, usually without a fare. Whereas, if he stayed downtown, he might have five or 10 short runs in the same amount of time.
There are steps drivers can take to feel safer, though, such as installing a bulletproof shield in the cab, between the front seat and the back. But many drivers say they do not want the shields. They have all kinds of reasons why: They say if they can't chat with customers, they'll lose tips. They say the shield won't make any difference, because a robber could just as easily shoot through the car window. They don't want the front seat to be stationary. The moon is too yellow. The sun is too hot. Even a cousin of Garrett, the latest fatally wounded cabbie, has said he has no plans to install a protective shield in his taxi.
Although the shields might make a positive difference, the Taxicab Commission shouldn't make them mandatory. The District doesn't tell store owners that they have to put up shields in front of their cash registers; they put up shields because they want to. We should, however, help the cabbies protect themselves by offering low-interest loans from the Taxicab Commission's assessment fund--into which each driver pays $50 a year--to those who wish to install a shield.
The police also should give special attention to cabbies. When they see drivers going into troubled areas, the police should escort them. Also, cameras should be mounted in public places that would help ensure drivers' safety--at the bus depot, at Union Station and in high-crime areas, for example. Citizens and businesses should look out for the cabbies, and the approximately 6,500 cabbies should look out for each other.
Sandra Seegars, a longtime community activist in Ward 8, was appointed to the D.C. Taxicab Commission last year.