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Taxi Driver (What? I Can't Hear You!)

A reader writes:

The one consumer issue that really eats at me in DC is the taxi mess. Istanbul has better taxis -- and they're pretty damn bad. Latest peeve: drivers (almost all) who speak on cell phones (sometimes even hand-held!) the whole time they're driving -- as though they weren't dangerous enough without distractions. I used to ask them to wait until I was out of the car to finish their conversations -- but after being KICKED OUT of cabs three times for asking this, I've given up. Who has time to hunt for a new cab?

The reader notes that New York City, for example, has banned cabbies from using cell phones while passengers are present. Can't we have such a ban here, he wonders?

In fact, the District was relatively early to the movement to ban the use of cell phones without hands-free equipment , and the DC police have been fairly aggressive about handing out tickets to those who still insist on yammering away into a hand-held phone. (That's not to say it isn't regularly done throughout the city.)

Seattle is moving toward a ban on cabbie chatter right now.

There's no move yet in Washington along these lines, and let's cut right to the real issue here: What we're talking about is, for the most part, immigrant cab drivers who spend the entire ride talking on the cell in their native tongue. English-speaking cabbies are vastly less likely to spend their work shift on the phone in good part because they would be embarrassed or self-conscious about having their passengers listen to their personal conversations. Immigrant cabbies have a huge advantage--in most cases, they can chatter without much concern that any passenger will be eavesdropping on their conversation.

It's often a shock when the cabbie switches into English to answer a rider's question or even jump into the conversation.

So when New York stripped cabbies of the right to speak on the phone while driving, it was the Indian and Pakistani drivers associations that protested. They argued that staying on the phone was their way of coping with a difficult and sometimes hostile work environment.

An Indian newspaper reported on New York cabbies' plight, quoting one driver saying:

"Being a cabbie in New York City is not easy. You only hear about some of us not being courteous or ultra professional. But you have no idea how tough many of the riders are. So we call up our friends and share with them our woes. And since we have the added advantage of using languages the passengers generally do not understand, we tend to talk more while driving."

Well, excuse me, but as much as I too would love to have a secret language in which I could communicate with my friends as we travel through public places, that doesn't mean it's ok for cabbies to pretend that their customers are just a parcel they're delivering to the next station.

The legendary radio talk show host Bob Grant, who retired last week after six controversial decades on the air in New York and other cities, used to dispatch unwanted callers to his show with a quickly roared, "Get off my phone!"

The D.C. Taxi Commission, a troubled agency even for the D.C. government, should quit its eternal obsession with converting to metered taxi rides and focus on what's really making cabs less pleasant and probably less safe: Get off that phone!

By Marc Fisher |  January 20, 2006; 7:09 AM ET
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I live in Herndon VA which is very close to Dulles airport. I have to give the cab driver step by step directions on how to reach my house in addition to having to listen to the phone chatter as he drives.
They are not only dangerous drivers but extremely rude.

Posted by: Marsha | January 20, 2006 9:14 AM

Oh man, this reminds me of a trip to Boston I took a few years ago! Having to take a cab fromt he airport to a friend's building, I end up in the cab of a giant slavic man with a throaty voice who reminded me a little too much of jabba the hut. He then spent the entire ride on his cell phone. Fortunately, I had taken just enough Russian in college to make out that he was talking about going out of town and getting women over the phone. When we arrived at my destination and he was helping me get my bags out of the trunk, I thanked him in Russian, he replied in Russian, and then his eyes got as big as dinner plates. It was fabulous.

I hope he learned his lesson that while he may think he's talking in a "secret language" to his buddies while enduring painfully difficult passengers (like me, who just politely sat in the back and didn't peep the whole trip), there are some of us out there that know just enough of said secret language to be dangerous!!

Posted by: k | January 20, 2006 9:20 AM

i am not so sure about the police in DC dealing with people talking on their hand-helds while driving. I see plenty of people talking on their cell-phones while driving...among them at least 3 policemen/women.

Posted by: alberto | January 20, 2006 9:44 AM

How about taking the driver's license number and the cab number and reporting it to the appropriate authorities --police, cab commission, insurance companies? Perhaps enough complaints will result in some sort of crackdown.
Ask the driver for his supervisor's name and number and tell him it is because of his unsafe driving--using a phone. Get the name of the cab company's insurer and report the incidents to them.

Posted by: John H | January 20, 2006 9:55 AM

A friend of mine was taking a cab one evening from DC to Arlington. Her parents taught her enough of their native language (one commonly spoken by cab drivers in the DC area) to be able to understand a bit of what the driver was saying in his phone conversation...and to understand that he was talking about her! People's ethnicity and language abilities are not always obvious. Be careful what you say, even if you think your customer (coworker, etc.) can't understand you!

Posted by: Jessica | January 20, 2006 10:08 AM

After studies showing that talking on a hands-free phone is just as dangerous as a hand-held phone, shouldn't we have a law in the district that just flat-out prohibits talking on the phone while driving? It's not just cabbies who are doing it.

Posted by: Ryan | January 20, 2006 10:31 AM

I don't have a problem with cab drivers talking on their cell phones, as long as it is hands free, while i'm in the cab. If everyone else is allowed to do it then why shouldn't they be able to? Secondly, why would someone think it is rude for cab driver to have a conversation while driving his/her cab. Does that mean its rude for a passenger to speak with a fellow passenger while riding in a cab? What about all the passengers who are chatting on their cell phones while riding in a cab, is that rude? Seems to be a double standard. If this is such a big problem then the marketplace will respond to the need for silent cabs. I don't see that happening. A much bigger issue is this bogus zone system that they use. Having grown up in this city I know all the streets on the pathetic zone map they provide the passenger so I can get off or on right before passing into a new zone. Can you imagine coming from out of town and looking at that map? Why is so hard to put meters in the cabs? I assume because the taxi associations are fighting it tooth and nail because the current system is such a money making sham.

Posted by: Washington DC | January 20, 2006 10:35 AM

A "secret language?" Mr. Fisher, I wish you wrote your article in a secret language so I didn't have to read the ignorance filled garbage you are pushing.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 20, 2006 10:51 AM

Anonymous makes a good but not so eloquent point. Just because you don't know what language it is doesn't make it a secret does it? Most of these cab drivers have taken the time to learn english as their second language. Just because Americans, of which I am one, don't care to learn other languages doesn't mean that every language besides english is some kind mysterious babble. In addition why do all these people care about what the cabbies are talking about? Who cares? They could be talking about the fifth race at pimilico, the migratory patterns of butterflies or the price of rice in china. There only job is to get you to your destination in a safe and timely manner.

Posted by: Washington DC | January 20, 2006 11:11 AM

It might be a problem, but I have a problem with your article noting that:

"What we're talking about is, for the most part, immigrant cab drivers who spend the entire ride talking on the cell in their native tongue."

It looks like you are making generalities and stereotyping. Yes, there are tons of immigrants that drive cabs, but I have seen non-immigrant Americans doing the same thing. Please don't stereotype.

Posted by: Alan | January 20, 2006 11:21 AM

One other poster made this comment and I totally agree and take it a bit further, why in the world are police officers allowed to carry their own personal cell phones? I can't tell you how many times a day I see them on their cell phones all the while ignoring or being oblivious to what's going on while on "their beat"! Police officers are there to protect the citizens not chit chat on their cell phones!

Posted by: Washington DC | January 20, 2006 11:45 AM

No, the DC Police do not give tickets. In my neighborhood of Adams Morgan, three cars passed me with drivers talking on the cel phone. The first cop I saw, I approached and asked him to please ENFORCE the law. He was understanding in between sips of coffee, but i'm not sure if he will.

I never take cabs anymore, anyway. They are too expensive.

Posted by: Peg | January 20, 2006 11:46 AM

I would tend to agree that talking on the phone while driving a cab should be forbidden. You are a paying customer and being provided a service through the cab driver and his/ her cab. As a customer you can ask for the radio to be off, windows closed, windows open, etc. There is also the resonable expectation that the cab driver will follow traffic laws, one of which specifically forbids speaking on a mobile phone without a hands-free device while driving. In my mind, this falls under the eye of the law and also the expectations I have in a cab- sometimes I would like a quiet cab ride home after a long trip. Listening to cell phone conversations does not fall under that expectation to have a quiet ride.
The language and working conditions issues simply open up another can of worms. I agree that driving a cab is stressful and hard work, however other work environments are also stressful and require long, hard hours. A cell phone conversation with a friend may provide relaxation, however it should be had outside of the work environment and not part of the argument for why cab drivers should be allowed to talk on the cell phone. It's also a sort of "cab driver empor" situation with the language. I, like many living in the DC area, speak several languages and among those are languages normally spoken by people of other skin tones. I can understand what may be thought to be a "secret language" and am also not afraid to address people in that language, be you a tourist in need of direction or a cab driver.

Posted by: J.A. | January 20, 2006 11:57 AM

Safety is the issue here. A taxi cab driver is no different than an airline pilot or a school bus driver. They are engaging in the business of transportation. That involves an unwritten obligation/contract between the fare/passenger/school child for which they exchange money for services -- regulated services.
These services are engaged so as to provide safe and uninterupted transport. One would not find it acceptable if the cab were so poorly maintained that it were no longer a safe mode of conveyance. And, one should also find it unacceptable that the fallible flesh and blood individuals who hold your life in their hands to also be using those hands -- that attention span -- that power of concentration -- in a fragmented manner.
A cabbie is paid to convey you safely. Period. The issue has been allowed to be clouded. Etiquette aside, language aside, ethnicity aside -- it is purely a safety, legal, and contractual issue. No different than expecting the airline pilot to be sober, or the school bus driver to be of sane mind.
Cell phones are a marvelous thing, folks. When this happens next take out your phone, snap the cabbie's photo when he/she commits this offense. If she/he makes you get out then what is the loss? Is your safety worth being ten minutes late to a meeting. Perspective, people. Life and limb are invaluable. What if every passenger whose safety is compromised in this manner did take a photo and turned it in to the authorities? With copies provided to the Washington Post or your favorite television channel's investigative journalist. Maybe, just maybe, something will happen. What say you?

Posted by: It ain't fare | January 20, 2006 12:13 PM

A reply to "Washington DC":
You state "If everyone else is allowed to do it then why shouldn't they be able to?"
The topic is not negoatiating staying out on prom night -- it is public safety.
"Secondly, why would someone think it is rude for cab driver to have a conversation while driving his/her cab. Does that mean its rude for a passenger to speak with a fellow passenger while riding in a cab?"
Etiquette is my profession. However, as I said before, it is not the crux of the issue. If you wish to take it down the etiquette road then we can do just that. Etiquette is a set of rules designed to maintain civility and respect. It is highly disrepectful to be given less than full consideration at the department store counter, correct? Why would you find it acceptable to have your personal safety compromised by one who prefers to give less than the full attention the situation demands?
"What about all the passengers who are chatting on their cell phones while riding in a cab, is that rude?"
Actually, no, as long as your tone is kept low and to a minimum. Remember, the cabbie has the power to ask you to refrain at any point. If you were sharing a cab then it would, indeed, be rude. Just the same as those very public phone calls we are forced to listen to while standing in line, in the elevator, or, the ultimate in vulgarity, the toilet conversation.

Posted by: It ain't fare | January 20, 2006 12:35 PM

While some posters are getting upset about a cab drivers "right" to speak when and where he wants, they ought to take it a step further, would you want a surgeon to yack on is phone while working to save your life? What about a dentist perfoming oral surgery, or simply a waiter yacking while you are giving him your order?
Bottom line is, when I step into that cab I am paying for a service, which includes getting me to my desired destination in a timely and SAFE manner. If it is some important for him/her to talk on the phone I suggest they wait until their cab is empty or find another profession. They are here to provide a service, not for us to just give them money and all else be damned.

Posted by: Iraqi Vet | January 20, 2006 12:56 PM

If safety is the issue, how is a taxi cab driver any more or less safe driving down the road with a hands free device chatting on their phone then you or me?

Posted by: A reply to it aint fare | January 20, 2006 12:57 PM

If passengers don't like the service they are getting then they should tell the cabbie why and get out of the cab. I'm sure this will change when cabbies start making less money. The consumer dictates the choices in the marketplace. Don't wait for the cabbies to act, take action into your own hands.

Posted by: Bad service | January 20, 2006 1:03 PM

I TOTALLY AGREE! If you don't like the service you received then don't tip the driver. If the drivers start losing tips then they will change.

Let the consumers drive the market.

Side Note, the non smoking consumers should have driven the market and forced non smoking bars rather than forcing business owners to create non smoking environments.....Stupid Smoking Ban

Posted by: Go Bad Service | January 20, 2006 1:25 PM

Honestly, I prefer it when they're jabbering away with their friends (in any language). That's better than being a captive audience to be hassled. One driver kept insinuating that I'm fabulously weathly and why won't I buy him a house? Another recited his own poetry and tried to get me to purchase a copy.

Maybe they think they're being friendly. I'd much prefer to be ignored.

Posted by: Uncomfortable | January 20, 2006 1:30 PM

Marc, you wrote:

"In fact, the District was relatively early to the movement to ban the use of cell phones without hands-free equipment , and the DC police have been fairly aggressive about handing out tickets to those who still insist on yammering away into a hand-held phone."

Um, no. That's just not true. Seriously, go find a cop parked at a corner or whatever, then count how many drivers pass by him/her while talking on their cell phones w/o a hands-free device. I bet you'd hit 20 in about five minutes, and I bet the cop wouldn't bat an eye. That law is just another law that the DC government has passed that it has no intention of enforcing.

The smoking ban will be the same way. Just watch.

Posted by: Matt | January 20, 2006 1:47 PM

It's a safety issue AND a service issue.

Cabbies are licsensed by the city and have agreed to abide by the cities rules. No cel phones while on duty - it's pretty simple.

Posted by: aflapr | January 20, 2006 1:51 PM

It doesn't matter whether it's English or any other language. Most passengers don't like to be blatantly ignored for the entire ride, and even made to feel guilty for interrupting to give directions.

And of course, I shouldn't have to point out that the difference between the passenger talking on the phone and the cabbie talking on the phone is that the cabbie is not the one paying for service.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 20, 2006 1:52 PM

"A reply to It ain't fare" inquired "If safety is the issue, how is a taxi cab driver any more or less safe driving down the road with a hands free device chatting on their phone then you or me?"
I can't see where they'd be safer -- under any circumstance -- whilst conducting a cell conversation. Can you?
I do not believe I addressed hands-free versus handheld. I did, however, say that their attention span and power of concentration was being fragmented. Thus, creating a safety issue. And, that their service implies a safe and completed journey.
If you review Mr. Fisher's first paragraph, the topic being cab drivers and cell phones -- "sometimes even handhelds!"
One fiddles with ear buds and bluetooth devices as well.

Posted by: It ain't fare | January 20, 2006 2:03 PM

As long as the cab doesnt smell like indian food wrapped in a diry diaper just get me from point A to B without an accident -- or taking me "scenic route."

Only drivers worse then cabbies..bus drivers. I swear I ahve almost been smooshed by them several times. Its like they dont even pay attention. They figure they can drive this hulking tank around town without any regard for the safety of other cars or peds.

Posted by: Anchorman | January 20, 2006 2:06 PM

Agreed, "aflapr"
I did not properly emphasize the service and law abiding aspects. Merely alluding to this by stating they exchange money for services -- regulated services.
Thank you for calling me on that.
"Bad service", your suggestion of ending the ride -- making a financial impact -- is excellent.

Posted by: It ain't fare | January 20, 2006 2:12 PM

"If safety is the issue, how is a taxi cab driver any more or less safe driving down the road with a hands free device chatting on their phone then you or me?"

How more or less safe is this cabbie? It doesn't matter. What matters is if there is an accident because of said cabbies distraction - your life is in the hands of a stranger. When you are the one doing the chatting and driving, then it's your own fault if you cause an accident or something that causes you bodily harm.

Being in a bad with a cell phone chatting driver and being injured in an accident because of that drivers neglect seems no different than being a driver/pedestrian who is injured in an accident because another driver on the road was distracted by his/her cell phone conversation.

Posted by: k | January 20, 2006 2:40 PM

I was in a cab from Union Station to the Zoo area. The driver was on the phone the entire way across town and he was conducting another business. He had to swerve once to avoid being hit when he tried to change lanes and he threw me across the seat. When I confronted him about it when I got to my destination, he denied the whole thing. Another cabbie was arguing with his wife, yelling at her, while he was driving. The taxicab commission needs to do something about it.

Posted by: bj | January 20, 2006 2:48 PM

"k": While I understand what you are saying, and agree in genearl, there is a differrence between being in an accident caused by the cab driver that you hired and being in an accident caused by a civilian driver.
The fact that you hired the driver -- money for services -- that you rely on his/her purported professionalism to take you to your destination safely.
If DC law enforcement is not interested in this issue I surely bet the insurance companies ARE.

Posted by: It ain't fare | January 20, 2006 3:00 PM

We are becoming a society of increasing intolerant people.
If you genuinely believe this to be a safety hazard I understand your concern. If you don’t like the cab driver speaking on the phone, you have choices. The tone that Fisher sets is one that does not tolerate people speaking unless he can understand what it is they are saying. Although I challenge him to really investigate whether that is the only problem he has. I guess I wish to ask people to think of it in the grand scheme of things. To me it’s a cabbie on the phone for a few minutes of my life. Is it annoying? Sometimes, is it worth the time in legislation? Not to me… Do we really want to be a society that feels the need to create a new law every time something irritates someone? Or can we pride ourselves on being understanding and patient, especially when it comes to people that English is the second language. I see this all the time and it is sad, people making insensitive comments at the 7-11, or when they get off the phone with their helpdesk that happens to be in India. People complaining about what they hear, and I think, if they could only hear themselves…

Posted by: DC | January 20, 2006 3:00 PM

"it ain't fare" - you expanded the point I was trying to make perfectly.

Mr. Fisher - I love how you bring up topics that get people all hot and bothered!! Makes for great discussion (especially for those of us more open minded to seeing mutiple sides of an argument) - and an enjoyable place to pop onto during the day that breaks up the humdrum of daily life!

Posted by: k | January 20, 2006 3:25 PM

Believe it or not most of the time cabbies are just trying to stay in touch with other cabbies for security reason, plus if they need any help with directions they can easily get help. There is nothing wrong if a cabbie can tell other guys on the phone where he is going and where he is leaving from for his own safety in mind. By the way I thought the whole point of going hands free was to increase driver safety, so please stop making excuses and just give them a break and let them do their job.

Posted by: Sager | January 20, 2006 3:34 PM

I think it's definitely a safety issue, as has been covered above. If I'm paying someone for services that involves safety, I expect the services to be delivered in the most safe way possible, and using a cell phone (esp. with no hands free device) doesn't cut it.

With regards to Mr. Fisher's secret language comment, I see his point, even if he didn't put it very tactfully. I don't feel that being able to complain about one's customers constitutes a good justification of potentially endangering their safety. Nor does it make for very good customer service. Back when I was in the customer service industry, I'm not sure my bosses would have been OK with my using a foreign language to whine about customers who stressed me out.

Posted by: Spud | January 20, 2006 3:38 PM

I am curious who are at the other end of the line? Who has that kind of time totalk to them? Other cabbies?

How can they afford so many minutes?

Just wondering!

Posted by: V | January 20, 2006 5:27 PM


Posted by: poop | January 20, 2006 5:48 PM

"K": I appreciate your viewpoint and your comment.

"Poop": Mommy says get off the computer until you can control that potty mouth.

Have a good weekend, all. Be safe no matter what mode you are using -- come back for more great exchanges next week.

Posted by: It ain't fare | January 20, 2006 6:31 PM

The more fundamental issue: People driving while talking on phone. After more than a few near misses with such individuals, I'm convinced they're worse than drunk drivers. This goes beyond freedom to be a self-absorbed, oblivious idiot behind the wheel. As technology transforms society, it only follows that legislation should follow suit.

Posted by: Dave | January 21, 2006 7:49 AM

The more fundamental issue: People driving while talking on phone. After more than a few near misses with such individuals, I'm convinced they're worse than drunk drivers. This goes beyond freedom to be a self-absorbed, oblivious idiot behind the wheel. As technology transforms society, it only follows that legislation should follow suit.

Posted by: Dave Marks, Freeport, IL | January 21, 2006 7:50 AM

This isn't just a DC problem by any means.

Taxi operators, as 'professional' drivers should be setting the standard for professional, courteous behavior. They don't. I have had too many near misses to count in the DC area with my driver yammering away on a cell phone both in English and other languages, and now when I need a ride to the airport, I either drive myself or call a car service, where I know the drivers are more reliable, and I have leverage if I am not satisfied.

Posted by: Annoyed in Chevy Chase | January 21, 2006 1:06 PM

This so hit home with me! I've actually been in a situation where the 'other language' yammering has been so loud and unbearable that I had to ask the driver if the could possibly lower his voice.
It no in my nature to shush adults, but my nervers were bing rattled and I was under stress.
Another time, a driver asked my friend to borrow his cell phone, and granted it was a local call, it ended up being a lengthy one in another language and he kept getting cut off and asking us to dial the number again...

Is there a forum online where unhappy regular cab riders can gripe and share scary stories?

Posted by: Meg | January 22, 2006 8:41 PM

Totally missing the point.

Talking on the phone is a side issue. The number one issue is getting metered cabs. The zone system is overpriced, inaccurate and generally an embarrasment.

Posted by: modthinglet | January 23, 2006 4:53 PM

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