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D.C. Legislators Discuss Safety Measures For Taxicab Drivers, Passengers

Some D.C. legislators want plexiglass dividers to protext drivers from passengers.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/4298888209/
Some D.C. legislators want plexiglass dividers to protext drivers from passengers.

In the wake of the fatal shooting of a taxicab driver in Adams Morgan, a Wednesday D.C. Council hearing on taxicabs turned to what the city can do to keep drivers safe.

At the hearing, Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) expressed concern that drivers are too vulnerable to crime while in their taxicabs. Graham cited the case of Solomon James Okoroh, the 57-year-old father of five who was killed Tuesday morning in his cab by two male suspects.

"I don't think we can continue to afford to do what little we've done on driver safety," said Graham, who said he was drafting legislation that would mandate safety measures for taxicabs. Both Graham and Cheh said they'd be open to mandating that plexiglass dividers be placed between drivers and passengers, as New York does.

"If I was driving a cab during the wee hours... I would want to have protection," said Graham. Okoroh was shot around 3 a.m.

Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton said that new credit card payment options—which will be available in all cabs by the end of August—could help dissuade robbers looking for cash, and also mentioned that new panic buttons that will be mandated for all cabs by mid-2014 could help drivers and passengers signal to police when a problem arises.

A driver representative, though, said that they wouldn't support the move. "It makes the job very impersonal. A lot of drivers like to have interaction," said Massoud Medghalchi of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association.

A large part of the hearing dealt with the other side of the coin, though—the safety of passengers.

Jen Corey, a former Miss D.C. and representative of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, said that she had stopped taking taxicabs because of repeated incidents with drivers. "I cannot risk my safety in hopes that I get a good [driver]," she said.

Corey said that a recent survey conducted by Collective Action for Safe Spaces found that 29 percent of respondents said they rarely felt safe taking taxicabs at night, and that many respondents had experienced harassment of some sort.

Cheh questioned Linton on how the commission handles, categorizes and tracks passenger complaints. In a February hearing, Linton said that on average the commission received 150 complaints per month, 80 percent of them from passengers who report being verbally or physically harassed.

But at today's hearing, Linton backtracked from those numbers, saying that in 2012 only 744 complaints were received, 33 of those dealing with harassment.

Cheh and Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) expressed concern with the commission's seeming inability to keep its numbers straight, but Linton said that he was moving forward on keeping better tabs on which complaints were made and how they were addressed.

Additionally, he said, the commission was developing a point system under which repeat offenses by taxicab drivers could land them fines and suspensions, and that all taxicabs would be required to have uniform dome lights by September—allowing passengers to more easily identify them.

Linton said that troublemaking taxicab drivers were in the minority—D.C. has 10,000 limo and cab drivers—but Cheh said that she still wanted to ensure that passengers can easily report problems to the commission.

"We don't want women to be fearful if they enter a taxicab in the District of Columbia," she said.

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