D.C. taxis struggle with passenger, driver safety

\'It\'s a two-edged sword. The drivers are exposed to their issues and the passengers to theirs,\' says D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton. (Courtesy D.C. Taxicab Commission)

WASHINGTON — Getting around D.C. late at night can prove tiresome for some residents. Metro closes before the bars and private car services like Uber can be pricey.

But what about taxis?

In a recent survey conducted by Collective Action for Safe Spaces, 43 percent of respondents say they feel safe taking cabs only some of the time and 17 percent say they hardly ever feel safe. Seven percent say they never feel safe in a taxi.

“For many of us, it can feel like a gauntlet trying to get from point A to point B in this city,” CASS says in a statement.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission says the findings are unacceptable.

“It’s a matter that we are concerned with, looking at constantly and will continue to … find mechanisms that will make taxicabs safe to use,” commission chairman Ron Linton says.

To address some of these safety concerns, the commission is implementing changes to D.C. taxis, including installing panic buttons for both passengers and drivers. Those will be added by June 2014, Linton says.

But for some, the damage has already been done.

Jen Corey, Miss D.C. 2009, says past experiences with local taxis have convinced her that the city needs an alternative like RightRides, which offers free transportation for women and members of the LGBTQ community.

The volunteer service is sponsored through ZipCar and guarantees a safe ride home between midnight and 3 a.m. The program was first launched in New York in 2004 and has since provided transportation for thousands of clients.

One year ago, Corey says she was thrown out of a cab at 3:30 a.m. en route to Friendship Heights because “the driver didn’t feel like driving [her] the rest of the way.” The year before, Corey says she was forced to jump out of the cab after the driver became angry and sped through a red light because she asked him to take her to Maryland.

Corey called police in both instances, she says.

“As a woman, it’s not right to be left on the side of the road at 3:30 in the morning,” she says. “It’s obviously completely illegal.”

Corey has also been mugged while withdrawing money for a taxi at an ATM, she says. She now prefers to use Uber because she can pay with her credit card and wait inside a bar or restaurant for the driver to arrive.

But with recent allegations of rape and sexual assault by private Uber drivers, even this car service can sometimes feel like a gamble, she says.

“I don’t think anything in this world is 100 percent safe, and I don’t think Uber is the answer,” Corey says. “It’s especially not the answer because it’s not affordable to all women.”

At a recent hearing before the District Committee on Environment, Public Works, and Transportation, the cab commission said safety is not just a concern for passengers, but also for drivers like Solomon James Okoroh, who was killed last week in Adams Morgan during an attempted robbery.

In addition to the panic buttons in all D.C. cabs, taxis will also be forced to accept credit cards starting next year. Requiring a bullet-proof partition remains under debate.

“This is a heck of a warning bell that we’ve gotten right now,” D.C. Councilman Jim Graham said at the hearing. “It is a dangerous job. So the question for us as the government of the District of Columbia is to say, ‘How can we make this less dangerous’?”

For the meantime, Linton says drivers must remember it’s in their best interest to provide safe transportation for their passengers.

“Drivers are businessmen – they are in business,” he says. “If the people driving those cabs don’t have the understanding of how to treat their customers, training isn’t going to help them.”

CASS is $20,000 away from its goal of bringing RightRides to D.C., spokeswoman Renee Davidson says. To make a contribution, click here.

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