GUESS WHAT WE learned yesterday at a D.C. Council hearing on what's wrong with taxicab service in this city? When all is said and not done about enforcing local laws governing the licensing and behavior of cabdrivers, it's a miracle that service isn't 10 times as bad as the nasty state it's in. No wonder this business has collected some of the least knowledgeable and most law-breaking people from around the world: There are some 11,000 people driving cabs around town -- and guess how many hack inspectors to check up on them?
Four. That's four altogther, assuming all slots are filled. That's four for three shifts or, if you like your math fine-tuned, 1.33 enforcers per shift. Now and then, says the police captain who oversees this operation, there are two other officers who can help out. Big deal! It's not the fault of the police department, but where is the city government's commitment to fair and efficient cab service?
It's all over the place -- and that's part of the problem, too: Police do only so much; the quasi-independent D.C. Public Service Commission has its rate-making and rule-making oversight authority; and then there's the D.C. Hacker's Appeal Board, which is swimming in passenger complaints, and the D.C. Citizens Traffic Board and the Department of Public Works and, for all we know, the Bureau of Kitchen Sinks and Spare Parts. Testing of cabbies? It's 25 questions, multiple choice, and you can take it over and over and over until you pass it. That has presented a temporary challenge to those with no knowledge of the English language or the rules, but those who can't push the right-answer buttons either can get a false license -- they held up some fine-looking samples at the hearing yesterday -- or they just get out there and drive, with or without somebody else's "face" (license). After all, who's going to catch them?
If anything concrete comes of these hearings, it will be a version of Council member H. R. Crawford's bill to toughen the testing and to limit aliens' eligibility for a hacker's license to those admitted for permanent residence, those granted asylum or permanent refugee status or any others granted permanent full- time employment by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This, by the way, is neither new, nor discriminatory; it is the law, and INS, not the District, would make the determinations. It does mean -- already -- that foreign students, who are supposed to be able to demonstrate an ability to support themselves while in the country, may work for no more than 20 hours a week if they have INS permission.
It's crackdown time, all right, for the sake of passengers and hard-working cabdrivers all over the city, and the council is off to a solid start on an incredibly awful mess.