Many taxi drivers say they are working longer hours, including night shifts, to support their families and that exposes them to more danger.
Many taxi drivers say they are working longer hours, including night shifts, to support their families and that exposes them to more danger. iStockphoto.com
To robbers, taxicabs may look like holdup targets that they can flag down on the street.
Cab drivers have cash in their pockets and their backs turned. So thieves can climb in and wait for a stop on a dark street, as Washington, D.C., driver Saeed Kahn says a passenger once did to him.
"With the big hunting knife ... under the chin, he asked me, 'Give me money!' I said, 'Excuse me, sir, do you need money or my blood?' " Kahn says.
A recent survey by the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests crimes against cab drivers in the Chicago area have increased of late, and there have been several attacks in recent weeks across the country, including in Michigan, Georgia and California.
Last week, Richard Temple Jr. was shot and killed in New Orleans — the second cab driver killed in the city in less than four months.
Many drivers say that in this time of recession, they are working longer hours, including night shifts, to support their families and that exposes them to more danger.
"Where an average driver would work six to eight hours and made a wage to get by, now you're working at about 12 to 14 hours," says Roy Spooner, general manager of Yellow Cab Co. of Washington.
Nathan Price, chairman of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, says drivers are looking for fares in neighborhoods with higher crime rates that they used to avoid.
"You may have to go and pick up people that you may look at, and you may say, 'This person looks like maybe a threat to my well-being,' but on the other end you're going to say, 'Hey, I need the money,' " Price says.
'What Are You Going To Do?'
In a cab line near the Washington Convention Center, half of the drivers who work the night shift seemed to have some kind of crime story — about their cab, or one or two close friends.
The other half were new drivers.
D.C. driver Mokti Loll explained that each time he has been the victim of a crime — once, he was hijacked; another time, he was robbed at knifepoint of his cash, watch and cell phone — it has been hard to return to his cab.
"What you going to do when you have little kids? You raise them. You have no other job so, you have to do that," Loll said. "It's pretty tough time."
Washington police keep no separate statistics about taxicab crimes. And Spooner of Yellow Cab says many cab attacks never make it into any kind of crime statistics because many drivers don't call the police — at least after the first time they're robbed.
"It's kind of a defensive mode that they seem to operate in," he says. "If you call, you're tied up for two, three hours doing police reports, waiting for stuff. And, you know, if I lost $15, let me see if I can make it back in the next few hours. It's a mentality, but it doesn't fix the problem, because they're still exposed."
D.C. driver Claude Clark offers his story: A passenger told him he had a .367 Magnum revolver in a plastic bag and demanded his money. Clark was skeptical.
"So I grabbed that hand that was in the bag, and I felt and I see there was no gun in there. Wham! Wham! I just started busting him up everywhere I could with my elbow," Clark says. "And then he'd turn around and start to try to get out the door and I put my arm on his neck ... and he finally got the door open and fell down on the ground. And I had my knife on me and I opened it and took off behind him."
Clark was unharmed; his assailant escaped.
Teffri Mekonnen, who has been driving a cab for five years, says there may be another reason why drivers may not call the police: "They don't want to tell, even. They shame what has happened on them. And even they don't talk to a friend."
A driver named Benyam said just a couple of weeks ago, he picked up two young men against his better judgment. They said they had to pick up their sister, then told him to drive deeper and deeper down a dark alley until one of the men grabbed him from behind and demanded his money.
"Then I gave it to him, about $40-$45, $35, I'm not sure," he said. "Then the other guy, he put something on my neck. I don't see what was it, but I knew something very thick. Then, OK, I'll give you anything you want."
But then, Benyam decided to shake up his larcenous passengers: "I step on the gas and I came out from the alley. Then, when they see that, they said, they talking each other, 'Oh, this guy's crazy. Stop, stop the car.' Finally they open the door and run away," he said. "I was lucky, you know? Because they could kill me."
Police officers came to the scene and drove Benyam through the neighborhood to see if he could identify anyone on the street as one of his assailants.
"So, by the time we finished our cruise and they were trying to take a report from me, you know the funny thing, the knife came out from my jacket and drop in front of the policeman," he recalls.
It was the knife he had been threatened with.
"One thing that make me upset," Benyam says, "nobody understand how hard we working in this community. And at same time you working like 10, 12 hours and you getting less money.
"Imagine, you pay for a gas, you pay for maintenance, and you working almost overtime every day. Right now is a recession going on, and you have to stick on this kind of job."
In many urban areas, taxicab driving has become an occupation for immigrants. Most of the cabdrivers with whom we spoke in Washington are Ethiopian or Eritrean. Many immigrants say they welcome the chance to be able to work for themselves. They have come from tough places, and they are willing to work mean streets.
But Mekonnen says that as he works longer hours for his family, the job has become another hardship for them to bear. "Especially my wife — always at nighttime she call me," he says. "Always after 10 o'clock, 'Where are you? Why don't you come?' "