Turn Off Your $%!*@#& Cab Lights!

Why can't taxi drivers follow the rules?

We’ve all been there. It’s late. It’s raining. You need to hail a cab. So you go to the curb, extending your arm in the established cab-hailing position. You wait. And wait. And wait some more. You wonder how there could possibly be 1,600 cabs in the city of Philadelphia. Then you wonder if, perhaps, you should walk one block in another direction, since no cabs seem to be coming. But, you reason with yourself: Once I walk away from the corner, I’ll see five cabs go by. So you stay.

And then, it happens. You see a shining cab light in the distance, a beacon of hope. You say to yourself, See, I sure am glad I didn’t walk to another block. You gesticulate wildly. You jump up and down. As the cab approaches, you wonder why there’s no flickering of headlights, no turn signal, no hint of this tacit agreement between yourself and the driver that this is your cab. And then, as the cab zooms right past you, its top light shining brightly, you see the silhouette of a figure seated comfortably in the back seat, on his way home, dry and warm.

And you scream, either internally or for all of the world to hear: Turn off your $%!*@#& cab light!

It’s infuriating. I take a lot of cabs, as my drawer full of cab receipts proves. And based on my thoroughly unscientific analysis of my own cab-hailing data, I would say that a good 50 percent of the time that I go to hail a taxi, I see at least one occupied cab go by with its roof light beaming, telegraphing that it is supposedly available. A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Kless was killed in Old City, apparently after he screamed at a cab driver for this very infraction. Aren’t the top lights connected to the meters so that when the flag is dropped, the light goes off?

Just this past Friday, I left the office at 19th and Market to hail a cab for the Trocadero in Chinatown. Normally, I would take a bus straight down Market Street, but I was in a hurry. Several occupied cabs passed me by, and sure enough, two of them had their top lights on. Turn off your $#@%!^& cab lights! I screamed. Internally.

Finally, a Victory cab pulled over and welcome me inside. I asked my driver, Clarence (who asked that I not use his last name), why some cabs don’t turn off their roof lights when they have fares. At first, he thought I was accusing him of this disgraceful behavior. “You can get out and see my light, man,” he insisted. “It is off!” Once he realized that I was just making a general inquiry, he apologized and offered: “You know, some of these guys, they are just lazy.”

Clarence went on to explain that the cab lights are indeed connected to the meter and that when the switch is working properly, the light will go off when the driver turns on the meter. But, he says, not all cab drivers and owners take good care of their cabs (I hadn’t noticed), and the switch is susceptible to breakage. “And when it breaks,” says Clarence, “many of these guys don’t fix it. Which is stupid, because it’s probably just a $20 thing.”

It turns out that the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which oversees the city’s mostly dirty and dysfunctional cabs, has a specific rule requiring all cabs to have top lights (the regulation uses the term “dome lights”) that operate in conjunction with the meters, with a $100 penalty for cabs that break it. Of course, being a cab driver in Philadelphia already pretty much sucks, with this weekend’s beating of a cab driver who was trying to intervene in a hate-crime assault and with the recent announcement that 300 cabs will have to be altered to accommodate wheelchairs, at no small expense to the owners. So I’m not suggesting that the PPA repurpose their ticket enforcers from doing the Lord’s work to slapping cab drivers with $100 fines. All I’m saying is, Turn off your $#@%!^& cab light!