IF THERE IS ONE four-letter word guaranteed to perk up any dying conversation in Washington, it is cabs. Just as surely as you have your taxi war story or blow-by-blow account of personal insult, highway robbery or insolent behavior at the hands of a hacker, someone else has one to top it. But for all who have hailed and flailed in vain as that passengerless cab drove over their toes and on to the hotel doorman up the block, there is new hope of revenge: the city government is cracking down on lawbreakers -- with improved complaint procedures and stiffer punishments.

No longer can that driver who requires you to take an aptitude test before you can enter the back seat continue to rely on a slow complaint process to discourage or wear down the vast majority of victims. According to the D.C. Department of Transportation, the backlog of complaints has been reduced from more than 300 early this year to about 100 in November, and should be eliminated by February. In the meantime, the approximately 30 new complaints a month are being processed within 30 days. This used to take six months to a year.

Tom Martin, chief of the special services division of the bureau of motor vehicle services, says one of the most effective enforcement tools now is a requirement that cab companies post a "passenger rights" notice in the taxis, which explains how to file complaints: you have to file within 30 days of an incident -- and the hacker's office is required to process each case within 25 days, with an additional 90 days for an appeals board hearing.

No more slaps on the wrist, either: now the board is authorized to impose fines, instead of merely suspending or revoking cabbies' licenses. A recent random sample for last month included a suspension of 21 days and a $200 fine for improper conduct, a $100 fine for refusal to transport a passenger, and a $50 fine for refusal to display the "face card" identification.

The majority of Washington's cabdrivers will be unaffected by these tougher laws because they don't break them. They, too, are insulted by the misbehavior of a minority of drivers who give the entire industry a bad name. How