License to Gripe

February 12, 2008 8:50:51 AM PST
Passengers' complaints against taxi drivers are skyrocketing.Potholes aren't the only thing rattling riders these days. If you feel you've recently been taken for a not-so-pleasant ride, you're not alone. Complaints against Chicago cabbies have hit a record high. Riders complain they are too fast, too rude and too reckless.

Fair or not, right or wrong, complaints about bad service are ticking up faster than a meter during rush hour.

In the past year alone, Chicago's Department of Consumer Services says it has taken in more than 10,000 gripes. That's a 42 percent increase over the 7,000 complaints filed by queasy riders in 2006.

Topping the list of complaints is reckless driving.

One gripe, filed in December, describes a wild ride on Lake Shore Drive that ended with "two passengers exited and looked like they needed CPR."

The next most common complaint is rude drivers.

The ultimate arbiter of that is Norma Reyes. As commissioner of Chicago's consumer services, she's in charge of regulating the city's 6,900 cabs and nearly 11,00 licensed drivers. And she's not immune to the occasional conflict with a cabbie.

"If we are talking about verbal insults, or what happened in my case, a driver throwing a tip in my face, that, I would call rude behavior," said Reyes.

Another big complaint is too much talking.. Despite a city ordinance that allows the average driver to talk on hands-free phones, for cab drivers that's a no-no.

"All the time, they are forever talking on their phones," said passenger Tangie Jones.

Another gripe is cabbies who refuse to take credit cards.

"There are only a very few cab drivers who are allowed not to accept credit cards at this time, and those are owner operators," said Reyes.

Then there are those who take the long way on purpose.

"They'll go on the highway in rush hour when you know it's the worst possible route," said passenger Bob Singer.

And some drivers refuse to serve some neighborhoods.

"I live on the South Side, and I can't say I can always get a cab," said passenger Robert Harris.

"If in any way shape or form you think you were in danger, if you think a cab is unsafe, you pick up the phone and call 311," said Reyes.

Within days of a complaint, the cabbie is notified to show up and wait in long lines to answer to the concerns of passengers, police and city inspectors. A trip costs time and money. One driver lost his medallion on the spot when an inspector noticed an airbag warning light.

"The city is ripping us off. The city is really mean to cab drivers," said driver Salem Qureshi. *They gave me a ticket that will cost $350, and plus I can't work for three days."

Cabbies are also required to undergo routine inspections three times a year, whether they have complaints or not. Inspectors check brakes, test meters and require cabbies to pass muster on dozens of other safety points.

There's also a "bad cab watch list." Last year, the city revoked or suspended 46 taxi medallions. One hundred fifty-eight cabbies had their licenses suspended. Eighteen others lost them permanently for bad behavior. One man has been driving since the Byrne administration and says fighting fines is pointless.

"Most of the time it's a no win, the customer is always right. I just pay the $60 and say have a good day," he said.

"I don't think it's fair, but I don't blame the city. There's no strong union for the cabs," said another cab.

"The bottom line is that when you are in a customer service industry, you need to be 'Nordstrom nice,'" said Reyes.

The news isn't all bad about cabbies. Last year, more than 800 passengers had such a good experience, they called or wrote the city to compliment a driver. Chicago's consumer services commissioner says our town's taxi drivers have a great reputation for returning items their customers leave behind.

Click here for the Chicago Consumer Services Commission's Taxi Cab Information page.


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