Monday, March 03, 2008

Taxi Wars?

Six Maryland cab drivers have been attached in the last month or so. All in DC. Is there an avenging DC cab driver out there taking out frustrations on his neighbors from Maryland? Background for non area readers - Maryland and Virginia cab drivers can bring people into the district, but they're not allowed to pick up passengers here. But some do (I had a Maryland cab pick me up just south of Chevy Chase circle years and years ago, and didn't realize it until I noticed there was a meter in the cab). And those that poach DC riders have possibly pissed off somebody in particular? Anyhow, here's the story from the WaPost.

Jermal Ali, a Prince George's County cabdriver who had just dropped off a passenger, was driving on New Hampshire Avenue NW about midnight Feb. 22 when a big white sedan with black lettering on the side zoomed behind him and rammed the rear of his vehicle.

When Ali scrambled to get out of the cab, the other man deliberately steered in his direction, striking the driver's door, then drove off in the latest in a series of attacks against cabdrivers.

Since Jan. 27, six cabbies, all from Maryland, have been attacked in seven incidents in the city. According to police reports, the assailant has made remarks suggesting he targeted the drivers because he believes they illegally picked up passengers in the District, which is generally not permitted for cabdrivers not licensed by the city. The assaults have occurred on some of the District's major streets -- including two on Connecticut Avenue NW -- between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., police said.

Police are still searching for the assailant, who they said has slashed vehicles' tires, broken mirrors and windows, and, in at least one case, physically harmed a driver.

In the first incident, at Phelps Place and California Street NW, the attacker slashed a cabdriver's tires and drove a half-block away, police said. He then put his vehicle in reverse and hit the driver "at a high rate of speed," causing him to be "lifted into the air," according to the police report. The cabbie suffered broken ribs, police said.

Montgomery County cabdriver Medhanie Weldegerish said that on Feb. 9, he was dropping off a customer in the 1300 block of Connecticut Avenue NW when a man pulled up in a car next to him and slashed two of his tires and put a knife with a three-inch blade against his chest.

"He never said a word to me. . . . Nothing," said Weldegerish, who has been driving a cab for 10 months. "I'm not scared, but maybe he's got a gun."

Later that night, another Prince George's cabdriver was sitting at a red light at 15th and L streets NW when a white Ford Crown Victoria pulled up behind him. A man jumped out and slashed the cab's right rear tire with a knife and then drove off, according to the police report. After the driver pulled over and began changing the tire, the attacker returned -- this time, slashing the left front tire.

"Why are you working here?" he asked the driver, who didn't respond.

D.C. police Cmdr. Andy Solberg said authorities have not determined whether the suspect is a vigilante D.C. taxi driver, as some victims suspect. But Solberg said the man's actions suggest he is not merely bearing a grudge but is "out of control."

"This is obviously very, very serious stuff," he said.

D.C. cabdrivers have a history of disputes with Maryland and Virginia drivers over the right to pick up passengers. By law, cabs from outside the city are allowed only to make prearranged trips into the District and are not supposed to pick up fares.

Victims have described the suspect's white Crown Victoria as having the numbers "2057" or "2042" on the rear and possibly the name "Roper" on the side. The general description of the attacker is a man in his 30s. He seems to concentrate on the Dupont Circle area, Solberg said.

"We're calling him 'the Rogue Cabdriver,' " said D.C. Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes. "It appears that he wants his competition out of the city."

D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon J. Swain Jr. said he has been working closely with police, cross-checking records of registered taxis to determine whether the attacker is driving a D.C. cab. But, he said, "we have not found anybody that matches the description" of the man in the white Ford.

"The thing about it is nobody is sure if it is a cabdriver," Swain said. "All it is is a vehicle with writing on it."

Tensions have been building in recent months over the planned April 6 switch from zones to meters for calculating fares, and D.C. cabdrivers staged several strikes in protest of the change. During strikes Feb. 4 and Feb. 14, D.C. drivers said out-of-town cabs were streaming into the city to take advantage of the absence of local taxis.

Even during a strike, the law restricts Maryland and Virginia cabbies' operations in the city.

"If you bring somebody in from your jurisdiction, you can return," Swain said. "What you can't do is drop somebody off and drive around the streets of D.C. and get customers."

Violators are considered unlicensed cabdrivers, Swain said. They can be fined $500 and their vehicles can be impounded.

Cabdriver Nathan Price, chairman of the D.C. Coalition of Cab Drivers, Companies and Associations, which staged the strikes, said District drivers have been complaining about the issue with Virginia and Maryland cabs for years. He said he does not know who is behind the attacks and shares concern about them.

Three of the victims said they are convinced that the attacker targeted them because they were driving Maryland cabs.

"He thinks I was stealing the fares from D.C.," said Ali, a cabdriver for two years, adding that he would never break the rules.

The Feb. 22 attack on Ali was the second he had suffered in less than two weeks. On Feb. 10, he told police that his rear windshield was broken and two tires slashed when his cab was parked on U Street NW.

The cabdrivers know they don't want to run into the attacker again.

"I fear for my life next time," Ali said.


At 8:35 AM, Blogger Fred Bershadsky said...

Nice post about drivers


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