(Soundbite of taxi meter)
SCOTT SIMON, host:
To robbers, taxicabs may look like holdup targets that they can flag down on the street. Taxicabs unwittingly pull up to a robber, in fact, and say: hop in.
Cab drivers have cash in their pockets and their backs are turned. So thieves can climb in, wait for a stop on a dark street, and as Washington, D.C. driver Saeed Kahn says a passenger once did to him...
Mr. SAEED KAHN (Cab Driver): He pushed me from here and with the big hunting knife he pushed over here on my...
SIMON: Under your chin.
Mr. KAHN: ...under the chin.
Mr. KAHN: He asked me, give me money. I said, excuse me, sir, do you need money or my blood?
SIMON: A recent survey by the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests there may be more crimes against cab drivers in that area, and there have been several attacks in recent weeks across the country, including Grand Rapids, Michigan; Columbia, Georgia; and two cities in California.
Just last week, a driver named Richard Temple, Jr. was shot and killed in New Orleans - the second cab driver killed in New Orleans in less than four months.
Many drivers say that in this time of recession, they're working longer hours to support their families, including night shifts, and that exposes them to more danger.
Roy Spooner is general manager of the Yellow Cab Company of Washington, D.C.
Mr. ROY SPOONER (Yellow Cab Company): 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.
SIMON: And Nathan Price, chairman of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, says they're looking for fares in neighborhoods with higher crime rates - that they used to avoid.
Mr. NATHAN PRICE (D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association): 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 hand(ph) you're saying, hey, I need the money.
(Soundbite of street)
SIMON: We stood in a cab line in front of a D.C. Convention Center area hotel. We found that about half 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.
A D.C. driver named Mokti Loll explains that each time he's been the victim of a crime - and once he was hijacked, another time he was robbed at knifepoint of his cash, watch and cell phone - it's hard to return to work.
Mr. MOKTI LOLL (Cab Driver): What are you going to do, you know, when you have little kids? You raise them, you know, and you have no other job, so you have to do that.
Mr. LOLL: Yeah, it's a pretty tough time on me, my wife, and everybody. We're feeling that way, you know?
SIMON: D.C. police keep no separate statistics about taxicab crimes. Roy Spooner of Yellow Cab says that many cab attacks never make it into any kind of crime statistics because drivers don't like to call the police - at least after the first time they're robbed.
Mr. SPOONER (Yellow Cab): It's kind of a defensive mode that they seem to operate in, because, you know, 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.
SIMON: Teffri Mekonnen, who's been driving a cab for five years, feels there may be another reason why most of the drivers who suffer a crime in their cab may not call the police.
Mr. TEFFRI MEKONNEN (Cab Driver): They don't want to tell, even. They shame what happened on them. And even they don't talk to a friend. Some they do like that here.
SIMON: A driver named Benyam told us that 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 and told him to drive deeper and deeper down a dark alley until one of the men grabbed him from behind and demanded his money.
Mr. BENYAM (Cab Driver): Then I gave him about 40, 45 dollars - 35, I'm not sure. Then the other guy, he put something on my neck. I don't see I don't see what was that, but I knew it was something very thick. Then, okay, I'll give you anything you want.
SIMON: But then Mr. Benyam decided to shake up his larcenous passengers.
Mr. BENYAM: I step on the gas and I came out from the alley. Then when they see that they said - they talking to each other - oh, this guy's crazy. Stop, stop the car. Then finally they open the door, run away. I was lucky, you know? Because they could kill me.
SIMON: Police officers came to the scene and drove Mr. Benyam through the neighborhood to see if he could identify anyone on the street as one of his assailants.
Mr. BENYAM: 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 just came out from my jacket and drop in front of the policeman.
SIMON: The knife that they had used to hold against you?
Mr. BENYAM: Yeah, they used - to kill me. But you know, one thing make me upset is nobody understands how hard we working in this community. Right now is - a recession is going on, and you have to stick on this kind of job, you know?
SIMON: In many urban areas, taxicab driving is now an occupation for immigrants. Most of the cab drivers with whom we spoke in Washington, D.C. are Ethiopian or Eritrean. Many immigrants say they welcome the chance to be able to work for themselves. They've come from tough places. They're willing to work mean streets.
But Teffri Mekonnen says that as he works longer hours for his family, the job's become another hardship for them to bear.
Mr. MEKONNEN: Especially my wife. Always at nighttime she call me. You have to come. Don't go far. Always after 10:00 o'clock: Where are you? Why don't you come?
SIMON: Cab drivers in Washington, D.C. talking about how the jobs they have are getting harder on everyone.