Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect make for Andraea Benson’s vehicle. It is a Chevy Impala. This version has been corrected.
For the best view in the battle over new rules for D.C.’s taxicabs, you need go no further than the front seat of Andraea Benson’s white Chevy Impala.
Benson is one of 13 public vehicle enforcement inspectors — more familiarly, hack inspectors. Her job? Making sure that everything in the District’s taxi world is copacetic.
These days, all is not well. District cabdrivers are in an uproar over new rules that require them to have credit card readers and dome lights installed in their cars. They’ve held protests and filed lawsuits. Some have joined forces with the Teamsters, seeking a stronger voice in dealing with the city.
All this has meant more work — and flak — for folks such as Benson.
“We hear it all — ‘It’s not fair,’ ‘I didn’t know,’ ‘It’s too expensive,’ ” she says.
On a bright Tuesday afternoon, Benson, 34, is midway through her regular shift. She leaves the headquarters of the D.C. Taxicab Commission in Anacostia and heads over the 11th Street Bridge, bound for downtown. Traffic is light, so it takes only a few minutes for her to get there.
As she idles in traffic on Ninth Street, just north of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, a taxi driver in the lane next to her rolls down his window and motions to get her attention. This could be good, or it could be bad.
Benson presses a button and her
passenger-side window rolls down.
“You catching any of my friends without the dome lights?” he asks with a lopsided grin. “They can’t be that stupid, can they?”
Benson smiles. “You’d be surprised.”
The driver laughs and pulls away.
It’s been five days since the inspectors began cracking down on drivers who haven’t installed the new digital dome lights. At least 25 cabs have been impounded for not complying. The drivers say they need more time to install the lights, which cost as much as $450. But the commission, which already extended the deadline once, is standing firm. So part of Benson’s mission this particular day is to look for violations of that rule.
She makes a right turn onto 14th Street. Just past the front entrance of the W Hotel, she spies a burgundy-colored Toyota Camry. The dome light is fine, but there’s another issue. And before she can even put her car in park, the driver spots her white Ford with the D.C. Taxicab Commission logo on the side, starts his engine and attempts to pull away. Benson hits the lights on her dashboard, then flips on the loudspeaker.
“Do NOT pull away,” she says.
The driver turns off his engine. Benson strides up to his window. Even before she asks for his license and registration, the driver is waving his arms and trying to explain. Benson shakes her head and motions for the driver’s paperwork. D.C.’s hack inspectors can write tickets and impound cars but don’t have the power to arrest drivers.
Here’s the deal: Cabdrivers have to park in an approved waiting space. Otherwise, they can be cited for loitering.
This driver tells Benson he’s waiting for a couple who popped back into the hotel to get directions, but she simply shakes her head. “You have to have it on your manifest,” she says, pointing to the paper log where drivers record their trips. Even an appeal from the cabbie’s passengers, who emerge from the hotel lobby midway through the stop, fails to win the driver a reprieve.
After five years on the job, Benson has developed a simple philosophy. “I’m firm, but I’m not nasty,” she said. “I understand these guys are trying to make a living. But I’m trying to do my job, and if I don’t do my job, I can’t take care of my business.”
The driver of the burgundy cab is still grumbling as he accepts the ticket. Turns out, this is his second citation for the same violation in two years, which means he’ll pay double the usual $25 fine. Benson reminds him he can appeal the ticket. The Camry pulls away — empty. The passengers apparently have found another ride.
Back in the car, Benson has moved just a few feet when another violator catches her attention: a black Suburban with Virginia “for hire” plates.
“You can’t be sitting on D.C. streets,” she tells the driver, who comes running up when he spies Benson moving toward his driver’s side door. Five minutes later, she slips a ticket under his wipers.
Out-of-state vehicles that idle in front of D.C. hotels and offices when they haven’t been hired are a big problem, Benson says.
Drivers from Maryland and Virginia can pick up passengers in the District as long as they were hired in advance by a customer. They cannot arrive at their destination more than 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled pickup time, and once they drop a passenger off, they cannot pick up another unless prior arrangements have been made. The rule is designed to prevent out-of-state cabbies from taking customers from D.C. drivers.
Over the next few minutes, Benson spots two more out-of-state cars. The Maryland Town Car driver parked outside the Washington Marriott at Metro Center gets a pass after he proves he’s waiting for a fare. But the Virginia driver with the black Suburban outside the Four Points Sheraton on K Street doesn’t fare so well. He gets two tickets — one for idling and the other for not having his passenger manifest in order. The result could be $75 in fines.
Benson hears a lot of good stories out on the job. And excuses? She’s heard them all.
Take the one about the dentures.
She’d pulled over a driver in Georgetown. He was from Virginia and had all kinds of excuses to explain why he was cruising for passengers in the District, even though it’s against the rules. He had kids, he said. A family, he insisted. Benson wasn’t being fair.
And then, he played his last card. He pulled out his teeth and presented them to Benson.
“He said, ‘I don’t even have any money to fix my teeth,’ ” Benson recalls.
She shakes her head at the memory.
“I said, ‘Sir, put your teeth back in your mouth.’ ” And then she handed him three citations — one for driving a vehicle not licensed to pick up in the District, one for not being licensed to pick up passengers in the District and one for soliciting passengers — in all more than $1,000 in fines.
“I call it like I see it when I’m out here,” she says.
Cab after cab passes with newfangled dome lights affixed firmly to their tops. Apparently, word is out that the D.C. inspectors are serious, and it appears that the only drivers daring to venture out are the ones who have the new hardware.
So Benson, headed north on 14th Street, is startled when she spots a white Ford parked across from a crepes shop sporting an old-style dome light.
“As long as they’re not parked in front of a cab company, we’ve been instructed to take it,” she explains.
She makes a call.
“Hey, this is hack inspector 15,” she says to the towing company dispatcher. “Can you send a crane to 14th and S?”