A Ride to Work or Vehicles of Violence?
Ensuring Car Service SafetyIta Yankovich
New Yorkers – and Jews especially – were horrified back in October when they saw disturbing footage of Lipa Schwartz being brutally beaten by crazed cab driver Farrukh Afzal in an unprovoked attack. There are many shocking parts to this story, but perhaps one of the most glaring is that this incident occurred in broad daylight on Boro Park’s bustling Thirteenth Avenue – and by a driver who is employed by Church Avenue Car Service, a popular cab company used by many Jews. As Afzal’s trial date approaches later this month, the question remains: How safe is it to hop into a car these days?
Cabs are quintessential New York fixtures. According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, about 240 million people take taxis each year. We use them to rush to work when the car won’t start, during bad weather when we don’t feel like walking, and especially to places where parking is scarce. As we’ve learned the hard way, a car is more than just a mode of transportation. It can be transformed into a deadly weapon, with passengers and pedestrians at the mercy of the one behind the wheel.
Danger: Crazy Driver Onboard
The NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission licenses, regulates, and enforces rules and laws in the taxicab and for-hire vehicle industries. Every car service base, the vehicles affiliated with that base, and the individuals who drive them must hold TLC licenses. TLC Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs Allan J. Fromberg insists that passenger and driver safety are of paramount importance to the TLC. He explains that car service driver’s license applicants are fingerprinted and background-checked, drug-tested, and must be certified as fit by a licensed physician. TLC Driver License applicants must also complete a 24-Hour TLC Driver Education Course and pass an 80-question multiple choice exam on a computer with a grade of 70% or higher. Finally, drivers must bear a Class E chauffeur’s license.
Fromberg says that Farrukh Afzal “is not and has never been a TLC licensee, nor does he own a TLC-licensed vehicle.” In fact, Afzal has been issued summonses for unlicensed operation in the past.
Car services aren’t the only ones to blame. In 2014, Uber said 475 licensed livery car drivers in California applying to drive for Uber failed the company’s criminal background check, including 14 applicants with sexual offense records, 37 with DUIs, and one with a record of attempted murder
How and why do car service companies hire unqualified drivers? How can passengers stay safe while hailing a ride? Those are the questions I set out to investigate.
License and Registration, Please
I reached out to many local car service companies to find out how they obtain and screen their drivers. Many of the representatives taking my call became hostile and refused to answer even the most basic questions.
Emunah Car Service is one of the few companies willing to be candid with me and answer my questions. Owned and run by Jews, Emunah takes passenger safety very seriously, according to Emil Sosunov, a manager at the car service. He says they obtain their drivers through classified ads put in The Jewish Press and Russian-Jewish newspapers. Emunah conducts a thorough criminal background check on all applicants and examines their driver’s license and insurance for validity. The company also makes sure that all their drivers are knowledgeable and sensitive to the rules of the Jewish community.
Eastland and Nostrand Car Service are both located in Marine Park, and representatives from both companies were eager to speak with me as well. Eastland is located right across the street from two synagogues, a mesivta, a yeshivah, a daycare, and several Jewish stores. They are very protective of the Jewish community that frequents their business. When it comes to screening their drivers, they make sure to check for a valid license, verify their insurance, and make sure the driver does not have any points or accidents on record. Management filters out poor drivers by paying close attention to their disposition when the drivers come to the interview and deal with dispatchers. “If we see that a driver is acting wild or angry with the office, we will discard him. If he is nasty to us, we cannot imagine how he will be to our clients,” says management.
Carmine Guiga, manager at Nostrand Car Service has been in the business for 40 years, and he says you just have to have an instinct when it comes to picking qualified drivers. The company follows protocol by making sure all applicants have a valid TLC license and that they are in good standing with the insurance company. Nostrand Car Service says they visit the TLC Commission website least once a month to make sure their drivers are clear of violations or suspensions. They also are adamant that drivers keep current with drug testing, done once a year by the TLC Commission. Drivers must present their testing receipts to the dispatcher. When it comes to screening for mental health issues, Carmine admits that that is a lot harder, but says that at a driver who is getting too old or disgruntled for the job is politely asked to retire. “We do not compromise on our drivers,” says Carmine. “We just have too much to lose by cutting corners.”
So, who is hiring those unqualified drivers?
A car service dispatcher who asked not to be named said, “There are many companies that do this. It’s a matter of survival. Rent is high, expenses are high, and these drivers are just cheaper.” Sosunov explains that the practice of hiring drivers without a clean record is more common than we would like to think, especially in New York where it is impossible for any driver not to get ticketed.
Sosunov also points out that being a cabby is an underappreciated job that comes with a lot of stress and little pay. “Customers get annoyed when they feel they are getting poor service,” he says, “but they need to understand that these are not Harvard graduates.” The drivers are simple people who can make as little as $6 an hour and often have to pay for their own gas says Sosunov who admits that drivers are hard to come by, which is why other companies resort to employing unqualified men.
Guiga agrees that some companies are “desperate for drivers and would rather take anyone than have a car just sit out on the lot.”
Sosunov wants to point out though that just because a driver has a “bad attitude or energy” this is not cause to contact the base and question the driver’s mental health. Driving for eight hours a day is stressful, especially in Brooklyn. Passengers should consider that perhaps the driver had to deal with traffic, double-parked cars, and a rude customer in their previous drop off. “They are just men trying to earn a hard living; they are not all ‘crazy,’” he says.
Don’t Get into a Car with Strangers.
There are a number of precautions you can take before getting into a car with a driver you don’t know.
Always confirm the name of the driver and make of the vehicle before you get in. It is also wise to get the name of the driver, if possible. Uber and Lyft offer passengers details such as the driver’s name, their photo and car type. Needless to say, people should not get into any car unless they see the car service logo on the vehicle. You should also know something about the driver before you entrust him with your life. One way to do this is to check out his rating on ridesharing apps ahead of the car’s arrival. If you’re uncomfortable with the rating, cancel your ride and call another.
Another smart idea is to open up your own maps tool, enter your destination and follow along, noting any odd route shifts.
Etty Klein, 68, recalls a frightening ride she had a few years back which caused her to stop taking cabs. She called a popular car service company in Boro Park to pick her up from home and take her to a podiatry appointment. “The ride shouldn’t have been more than 15 minutes, but the driver was going further away from my destination, on streets I didn’t recognize,” she says. “I asked him many times why he was going this way, but he didn’t respond.” Fearing for her life, Etty threw the cab fare on the front seat and dashed out at the next red light. “I shudder to think what would have happened to me if the doors were locked,” she recounts. When she reported the incident to the car service company that same day, they denied that anything ever happened.
Always trust your intuition. If you have an inkling of discomfort or sense something is off, don’t get in the car. If you’re already on the road and are in an emergency situation, call 911 immediately. Fromberg strongly encourages riders to call or visit 311 online with any questions, concerns, or problems they may have regarding the services the TLC. Never assume that if you complain to your local car service, or to services such as Uber and Lyft, the information will reach the TLC.
There’s often safety in numbers. Try riding with a friend or two or consider using the carpool option some ride-hailing services offer. In a 2007 press release, Shomrim recommended that if you must use a car service, don’t just pick one out of the phone book; ask around. Only use one – preferably heimish – that people you trust have used and had a good experience with. Even so, be cautious. Never allow unescorted children to ride in cabs; an adult should go with them. Women should also be wary about riding alone.
When it comes to international travel, the basic rules for staying safe remain the same. One thing travelers should be mindful of using only licensed and marked taxis. Most nations require proof of legitimacy to be prominently displayed. Tourists who are not careful about this, warns Professor Matt C. Pinsker, who teaches homeland security and criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, may be taken by drivers who lure them with lower fares; that is a good way to get price gouged or even worse. He also warns travelers that “a taxi driver who is overly interested in what you do for a living is a possible red flag that you are being vetted for a kidnapping.”
Hailing a Safe Ride
I reached out to a few popular ride-sharing companies operating in New York, including Uber and Lyft about how many incidents have been reported by riders in 2018. None of them responded with actual stats; instead, they focused on how safety was a top priority.
Alix Anfang, an Uber spokesperson, explains that there are many safety features made available through technology. For example, every trip is GPS tracked, and they also have a two-way feedback system and 24-7 support. Earlier this year, Uber added new safety features and improvements to their screening process including centralizing safety information in the app and an emergency button for 911 assistance. In September they announced a new Ride Check feature, address anonymization, and two-factor authentication. “We also have a team of former law enforcement professionals around the globe who are on call to work with police 24-7 to respond to urgent needs and walk them through how we can assist in an investigation. This team works to proactively educate law enforcement about how to reach us and get the information they need through a valid legal process,” Anfang says.
Campbell Mathews, communications manager at Lyft, said that Lyft riders receive a photo of the driver, the car make and model, and the license plate, all inside the app. If there is any problem, Lyft has a critical response line, which is accessible through the app 24/7 and is the fastest way to get a trained expert on the phone. Mathews also said that in any safety-related incident, Lyft puts the participants’ accounts on hold as they investigate. They also recently announced that Lisa Monaco, US homeland security and counterterrorism chief to President Obama, is serving as safety advisor to Lyft.
The 2018 TLC Fact Book estimates that from January 2016 to June 2018, TLC-licensed vehicles and drivers completed nearly 780 million trips. Taxis are here to stay, and for many, they are a daily means of transportation. Most of the time, the rides are uneventful with passengers getting to their destinations without incident. However, considering the ever-changing political and economic climate in this country and abroad, riders need to be extra vigilant and cautious of whom they get into a car with. Know what to look out for, stay alert, and be safe.
Sidebar: Taxi Tips from an Actual Cabby
Richard Kaufman, who works for Lyft and Uber in New York, shared these red flags to look out for when you get into a cab:
Lack of high-quality navigation system
Unfriendly and unknowledgeable driver
Face that doesn’t match the ID on display
Failure to display ID and license
Sidebar: Tracking your SafetyThanks to technology, there are ways to feel secure in a taxi. You can let your family and friends track your ride so they know where you are if you are late, Uber, for example, has a mobile app that allows you to “share status” and also share your driver’s name, photo, license plate, and location. They can then track your trip without downloading the Uber app. Lyft users can tap the Send ETA icon on the bottom bar, which will send a text message to family or friends with a link to your current route and location. If your cab doesn’t have these features, you can take a picture of the car’s license plate and send the photo (and any additional details) to a family member or friend.