I checked my email last night and I found a short and simple email from my former roommate, a guy I lived with for a couple of years in Astoria, New York (Queens). He had included a link and a “Does This Sound familiar?” subject line. When I followed the link, my heart sank as I read the story: Woman sues cab company after cabbie’s hell ride.
Amy Ewertz was trying to pay for her New York cab ride home with a credit card–something common in the city, but still frowned upon by many cabbies. The cabbie, according to the New York Post’s story, was angry she was using a card and sped off with Ewertz, terrified, in the back seat of the car. Understandably frightened, Ewertz hurled herself out of the taxi and was injured in the process. She has now filed a lawsuit against the cab company.
In July 2008, the same thing happened to me. Except I didn’t have the option of hurling myself out of the taxi… the cabbie had child locked me in.I was coming home late one night from working and I tried to pay my fare with a credit card when the cabbie arrived to my home in Astoria. The cabbie was blatantly irritated that I wanted to pay with a card and he claimed that the card wasn’t reading and he needed cash. Well, I didn’t have cash. And in New York City, you’re not supposed to need cash to ride in a taxi since you can verify whether or not a taxi has a credit card machine before agreeing to ride–something I had done in this case. (Read more about using credit cards in NYC taxis here).
The cabbie insisted that my card wasn’t reading. He claimed that sometimes it just ‘doesn’t read’, although I’d been paying cab fares with card at least a couple of times a week in that very same spot for years. I requested he try the card at the end of the block, if reception due to location was, in fact, the issue.
The cabbie grew increasingly hostile with me. I could hear him cursing at me under his breath while I tried the card again at the end of the block. I was frustrated. It was his responsibility to have his machine working and I told him as much. But in an effort to eliminate the rising tension, I told him I would get cash from my bank, 5 blocks away, if he’d drive me there.
Upon requesting that he drive me to my bank, he became furious. He child locked the door and sped off down the street. He said he was taking me to the nearest police station and this made no sense to me. Why was I being punished when all I was trying to do was pay my fare? Why was I being locked in a taxi against my will? I became genuinely afraid when I noticed he wasn’t driving me toward the nearest Astoria police station at all.
The grave mistake I made that night was not charging my cell phone before heading out for the evening. I panicked. I started screaming, kicking at the windows, and I even tried to reach my hand through the hole in the glass divider to get his attention. He swatted my hands away violently and I didn’t know what to do.
I got through to 911 on my phone, with my battery light blinking red, ready to die at any moment. I noticed a police car ahead of us on the street, and a combination of 911’s ability to radio the officers and the cabbie’s fear that he’d be making a bad situation worse by continuing to keep me trapped in the car resulted in us pulled over on the side of the street. I frantically tried to explain to police officers what had happened and he angrily explained to them his side of the story: that I was ‘refusing’ to pay and that he was driving me to the nearest police station.
What happened next I had a hard time believing: the police officers told me it would be best if I would just pay my fare and file an official complaint with the taxi company. Completely shaken up and desperate to distance myself from the cabbie and get home to my bed, I paid the fare–which included the distance we’d gone as part of my own taxi hell ride.
A few months later, I was summoned to the NYC Taxi & Limousine Court. I sat in a small room alongside the cabbie before a judge. I told my story. The judge, for what it’s worth, seemed to empathize with me. He scolded the driver on how irresponsible it is to lock a young woman at 3am in his car. He seemed to understand how terrified I must have felt. But here’s the kicker: in NYC, it is legal for a taxi cab driver to child lock a passenger in his or her car and drive the passenger to the nearest police station if the driver believes the passenger will not pay their fare.
I was speechless. This is legal? How is this legal? Why is it ok for a person, in my case, a young woman, to essentially be kidnapped by a complete stranger and he’s allowed to get away with it as long as he claims he was taking me to the nearest police station if he gets caught?
In the end, the cabbie had to pay a small fine and lost some points on his license and that’s it.
When I saw Amy’s story, I felt for her. I understand that cabbies need protection, but this law is unlawful. Any driver who wants to take advantage of a passenger by taking advantage of this law can get away it, and I believe that’s what happened in my case. Furthermore, if this kind of behavior is going to be legal, shouldn’t passengers be made aware of it? Why isn’t there a sign in taxis saying something to the extent of: If you don’t pay your fare, or if the driver thinks you aren’t going to pay your fare, or if the driver is irritated you’re trying to pay with credit card, you will be held against your will in this car and driven, supposedly, to the nearest police station.
If this bogus law is going to be held up in court, as it was in my case, shouldn’t it be common knowledge to New Yorkers and those visiting the city that this could happen? I think so. And that’s why I decided to tell my story in response to Amy Ewertz’s lawsuit.
Quick internet research has shown me that there’s either been a recent spate in taxi kidnappings since my incident or that it has always been a problem. Regardless, these open-ended laws protecting cabbies are harming passengers. Something needs to change. I wish her well with her suit and more importantly, I hope our incidents, and similar incidents experienced by others, help change this terrifying law.