Cabbies might be banned from cell phone use

October 16, 2009 5:08:19 PM PDT
It's something a lot of passengers can't help but notice and complain about the minute they get into a taxi. "I think when there are passengers in the car, the taxi drivers should not be on the phone at all. Period," passenger Alice Sandler said.

A driver on a hands-free device is legal right now in New York, but the push is on to change the rules for cab drivers.

The city's Taxi and Limousine Commission has a new proposal that would force all cab drivers to stop using all hands free devices unless they pull over. The main reason is it's simply distracting and too dangerous.

"At this point, I think we tried everything. The only thing that we have left at this point is just pull the ear piece off their ear. That's it. They're not going to be allowed to have it anymore. The problem goes away," Matthew Daus, the organization's chairman, said.

Taxi drivers have been prohibited from using handheld and handsfree phones while driving since 1999. But the new rules would significantly increase penalties and prohibit drivers from even wearing wireless headsets.

New York state banned texting while driving earlier this year.

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has called for a nationwide ban on all cell phone use while driving because of hazards associated with the practice.

Daus said the rules being proposed would be novel in targeting wireless handsfree headsets. Cabbies often use headsets on their right side, away from the window, making it harder for law enforcement officials to see them, he said.

"There really is no reason that you should be having it. There's no point," Daus said, adding that drivers often wear the devices to be able to ask friends for directions or to talk to their relatives while they're driving. "You know, it's a tough job, I understand that, but lives are at stake and at risk here, and it's the wrong thing to do to your passengers."

Out on the road and at a TLC meeting on Friday, there are already some who say put the brakes on that plan now.

"This is our lifeline. They want to cut our lifeline. The use of the cell phone has saved drivers' lives, not endangered them," argued Bill Lindauer of the Taxi Workers Alliance.

The proposed changes would also mean increased penalties for repeat violators: For instance, drivers could have their licenses revoked if they are convicted of three cell phone violations within 15 months.

"As a taxi driver, we have right to talk, but if they do something like that, it's really horrible for us, driver Mahatav Khan said.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York, called the proposal "cruel and irresponsible." She said the ability to use cell phones while driving, especially the use of wireless ear pieces, is a critical safety concern for the members of the cabbie association.

"Taxi drivers work in such isolation, and it's a dangerous profession," she said. "Imagine you're picking up strangers all day and all night long. You mean to tell me in the morning on a Friday night you expect a taxi driver to be defenseless on the streets of New York?"

The rules are expected to be formally proposed by December. Public hearings would then be scheduled.

Commissioner Daus said he was confident the new rules would be enacted by 2010.

"When this law passes, our inspectors will be on every street corner, pulling people over who have the Bluetooth on. The problem will be gone in a very short period of time," he said.

Some information from The Associated Press

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