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Concern over cab driver safety

(Published February 14, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The growing concerns about taxicab driver safety in the District will go public March 7 when the D.C. Taxicab Commission holds a public forum to gather public opinion regarding whether protective shields should be required in cabs.

Meanwhile, some taxi drivers feel the commission that is responsible for regulating the cityís taxicab industry is laced with political corruption and have called on U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis to investigate.

The issue of taxi driver safety came to the forefront last month after another driver was shot and killed in a robbery attempt in Southeast. Newly appointed commissioner Sandra Seegars, who lives in Congress Heights, made statements to the press saying drivers should protect themselves by not picking up "dangerous-looking" young men in bad neighborhoods. Her comments led to charges from city officials and council members that she was promoting racial profiling by cab drivers, which is illegal.

Seegars, however, said she is only trying to get drivers to think about their own safety. Responding to the racial profiling charges, Seegars wrote to Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large, saying, "once the existing (safety) condition is improved, the type of remarks I made cannot be supported. In the future, I will do whatever it takes to rid a problem within the taxicab industry, because my concern is for the drivers and riders, not the politics."

Schwartz, as chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, has also scheduled a public roundtable on taxicab driver safety and discrimination. The oversight hearing forum will be at 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at Hart Middle School, 601 Mississippi Ave. SE.

Seegars said she does not support making bulletproof shields mandatory, but rather thinks the commission and the city government should make it financially easier for those who want the shields to be able to install them. She has suggested using the Taxicab Assessment Fund, to which all taxi drivers contribute, to bankroll low-interest loans.

Louis B. Richardson, founder and vice chairman of the D.C. Professional Taxi Cab Drivers Association, sent a letter Feb. 5 to U.S. Attorney Lewis asking her to investigate the taxicab commission and the companies that insure taxi drivers in the District. Spokesman Channing Phillips said the office is currently actively involved in investigating the recent incidents of violence against taxi drivers, but said he was unaware of Richardsonís letter.

The taxi industry in the District has been under fire for several years, culminating two years ago with the convictions of three dozen cabbies and city employees and the former chairman of the taxicab commission over a scandal in which drivers bribed city inspectors to get inspection stickers for their cabs.

Five years ago, an audit of the commissionís Taxicab Assessment Fund found irregularities in how the fund was managed and how money was dispensed from the fund. Another audit is due to be completed by the end of next month, according to D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols. Seegars said that in her view, the commission has not implemented any of the reforms called for by the 1995 audit.

Last fall, Councilman David Catania, R-At large, held oversight hearings before his Committee on Local and Regional Affairs to hear grievances about the cityís contract with Super Shuttle, which runs between Dulles International Airport and downtown hotels.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator