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May 25, 1999


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Ban on cellular phones irks New York cabbies

Arthur J Pais in New York

Gurbir Bajwa has been driving a limo in New York City for over five years, spending over 15 ours a day, so that he could help his two children study at good colleges. In India he had worked as a company lawyer but now he is a full time taxi driver. His driving record is clean -- and his boss says the 58-year-old immigrant is one of the most reliable drivers he has had in the last decade.

The Taxi and Limo Commission does not know Bajwa as an individual. It is not worried about the safety concern Bajwa feels when he uses the cellular phone while driving his limo.

Last week the Commission ruled that the 90,000 taxi, limo and car service drivers in New York should not use cell phones while they are at the wheel. There have been too many complaints from passengers against talkative cabbies, a spokesperson for the Commission says. The New York regulation, reportedly the first such ban, is expected to be duplicated in many other American cities. In New York it will become effective on July 1.

While the Commission does not have a record of the accidents caused by garrulous drivers while they were on cell phones, the Commission's chairwoman enthusiastically justified the ban. She said the ban, approved unanimously by the agency's eight commissioners, will impose a $ 200 fine for each violation; if there are several violations, the cabbie could lose the license.

"A passenger has the right to get into a cab and not have a driver who is chatting on the phone," Diane McGrath-McKehnie told reporters last week. The driver should be focussed on the road, not the phone, she asserted.

She cited a conclusion reached by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which said that drivers using cell phones while driving had a higher accident rate.

The announcement hardly drew any protests from taxi drivers associations which in the past have damned the Commission when it began imposing stricter fines against over speeding and other road offences.

Instead of the protest, Farooq A Bhatti, leader of the Pak Brothers Yellow Cab Drivers Union, welcomed the order. He says he too was alarmed when he was recently driven by a cabbie who kept on talking to his friend. On another occasion, two cabbies using cellular phones, nearly crashed into each other. And what made the situation worse was that they stopped their cars, got out of them and started abusing each other in Punjabi.

Bhatti's organization represents about 15,000 cab drivers from Pakistan. At least 40 per cent of New York cabbies are from the sub-continent.

For Gurbir Bajwa, who drives the limo at night, using a cellular phone is a necessity. Echoing the sentiments of many other cabbies, Bajwa says that night driving in New York City is fraught with many dangers. "One feels psychologically reassured talking to a fellow Indian driving a cab at the same time in another part of the city," he says. "It is not that my friend could anything for me when I am mugged. But the reassurance is important."

He also says the Taxi and Limo Commission does not realize that often the drivers use the cell phone to get road assistance from fellow drivers. "So to have a blanket ban against cell phones does not make sense," he says. "There should be a more logical way to handle this situation."

Loneliness is another reason, says cabbie Trevor Pinto, why he talks to his friends using the cell phone.

"Let us be very clear over one thing," he says. "Being a cabbie in New York City is not easy. You only hear about some of us not being courteous or ultra professional. But you have no idea how tough many of the riders are. So we call up our friends and share with them our woes. And since we have the added advantage of using languages the passengers generally do not understand, we tend to talk more while driving."

New York cabbies use more than 60 languages including Arabic, Bengali, Creole, Russian, Swahili, Urdu and Vietnamese.

Pinto also says -- as do many other cab drivers from the sub-continent -- that at times he uses the cell phone to call family members in India.

"The cell phone is often a sheer necessity," he says. "And believe me, many of us use it very sparingly. We do not want to get into trouble, we do not want accidents."

He also realized a few years ago that passengers also found it offensive that when a cabbie talked in a language they did not understand.

"We do not talk for their benefits," he says laughing. "But remember many customers have negative and stereotyped images of cab drivers from India. And they will use any excuse, however trivial, to run us down."

Shaheed Ahmad, another immigrant cabbie, wonders if the Commission is aware of "hundreds" of passengers who must have a conversation with cab drivers.

"Many of them are lonely people, and they want to talk to us," he said. "Now, is that not a distraction?"

"And some people come into my cab with lot of anger. Or they are very sad. Something went wrong for them a few minutes ago, and they want to tell me everything."

Ahmad is worried what the next ban could be.

"Will they ban Nusrat next?" he says, while explaining that he plays the songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, while driving. "But, unlike some other taxi drivers, I do not play the music loud -- and often I ask the passengers if it is alright to play my music."

"Most of them are so busy carrying on their own business, their ears are full of other noises. They do not know if I'm hearing Michael Jackson or Madonna."

He sighs, and then with a deeply sad voice, he adds: "We cannot have any say in what is happening... Isn't it?"

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