Panic Button? How about a Clue Button, Instead?

Panic Button? How about a Clue Button, Instead?

A few members of the City Council, apparently with a lot of time on their hands, have proposed legislation that would require a “panic button” be installed in the backseat of taxis. It’s a bonehead idea at best. But it’s also vaguely racist and generally slanderous. It should be swiftly and emphatically abandoned.

The bill is sponsored by Laurie A. Cumbo, a Brooklyn Democrat, who says she is promoting safety. And no one is against safety, right? The problem is that a taxicab—at least for the passenger—is already an exceedingly safe place. But Cumbo seems entirely unaware of the facts. While in the last year or so there has been one highly publicized sexual assault conviction of a taxi driver and another widely reported allegation. But these are one-in-a-million events.

Overall, the fact is that taxi drivers are unusually law-abiding. They are arrested at a fraction of the rate of the general public. They are almost never convicted of a violent crime. And in those exceedingly rare cases, the crime is nearly always off-duty, not against a passenger. Inside a taxi, the passenger can see the driver’s name and his license number. There is an electronic record of who is driving the cab. While anything is possible, all of these factors make driver-on-passenger assaults exceedingly unlikely as well as historically extremely rare. All told, taxi drivers are arrested at less than 1/3 the rate of the public at large (even though they have much more contact than average with the police).

Cumbo is immune to these facts. She told the New York Times, “Once you step into a cab and the doors are locked, you are very much at the will of the driver.”

So the panic button idea is itself based on panic, not real danger. If that were the only thing at stake, it would be easy to laugh off as just another silly piece of legislation. But that is not all. The panic button idea is an insult to the hardworking, mostly immigrants taxi drivers who do not deserve to be portrayed as predators-in-waiting.

The worst part is that the TLC, while not backing Cumbo’s bill, has spread similar panic itself. I am a lawyer is two long-running class action lawsuits where the TLC has adopted Cumbo’s unbaked logic. One case is based on the TLC policy of suspending cab drivers who are arrested (not convicted) of a crime. The other is based on the TLC policy of revoking the license of cabdrivers who are convicted. In both cases the TLC acts even if the crime is totally off-duty and without any regard for the driver’s overall record.

In both cases, the TLC has defended its policy with statements very much like Cumbo’s. That taxi drivers are often foreign born and dark-skinned makes this fear easier to sell.

The TLC’s legal position is that they cannot be bothered with the facts or even an investigation. The TLC says it must act first and question later because these cabbies might be dangerous—even if very few, if any, of them actually are dangerous.

When pressed, the TLC has admitted the truth. Charles Fraser, then the general counsel of the TLC, admitted in a sworn statement that over a four- year period, just two taxi drivers were convicted of “violence related” offenses. It is not two per year; it’s two in four years. Fraser later testified that neither occurred while the driver was on duty. And to say something is “violence-related” does not even mean the act was actually violent as most people understand the term. Also, you have to consider the context. There are roughly 100,000 taxi drivers. So if one (or even two) per year is convicted of a serious offense, it really means that cabdrivers as a group are still extraordinarily non-violent.

If anyone in a taxi is at risk, it’s the driver. According to the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, taxi drivers are between 21 to 33 times more likely to be murdered than other workers. If the City Council is looking for problems to solve, here is a real one. But a taxi driver assaulting a passenger is a non-problem. So let’s install those panic buttons, but only after crime everywhere else is eradicated and just after we put diapers on horses.

Check This!

The New York Times has a Christmas Day editorial saying that app-based taxi services like Uber and Lyft need to do a better job of background-checking their drivers. It cites a single incident– albeit one that has grabbed headlines– in which an Uber Driver in New Delhi was accused of raping a passenger.  

Uber, for one, says its checks are superior to those conducted by taxi regulators. Uber naturally does an Internet-based check, not a fingerprint based search used by at least some regulators.

What this editorial and many like it miss is that an aversion to regulation, background checks included, is the whole point of app-based services. They say that driver reviews regulate the system and weed out bad drivers. 


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