Toxic Taxicabs: Above many a taxi in this yellow-cab town, do- gooder agitators have installed nightmare-inducing signs of a grinning skull in a Stetson hat, gripping a fag between yellowed molars, against a turquoise-blue, prairie sky backdrop. On either side of the skeleton, the words "Cancer Country" loom. Thanks to the ubiquity of these funereal signs, fearless New Yorkers, usually oblivious to health concerns, seem at last to have made the connection between certain dangerous behaviour and probable risk to life and limb. They are terrified. As one previously coldblooded New Yorker declared last week, her long-dead instinct to self- preservation rekindled, "I'll never take a cab again."

New Yorkers had always suspected that cabs were unsafe, but it was only after the appearance of the skull campaign that it occurred to them that cab rides, in addition to being harrowing and potentially fatal, might also be carcinogenic. Sadly for the taxi business, this perception turns out to have been a misapprehension; the ad campaign, so it turns out, was tied to same other unrelated public health hazard, and yellow cabs, dangerous as they may be for other reasons, do not at this juncture show any demonstrable link to cancer. Nonetheless, the damage has been done, and wary New Yorkers are taking no chances.

The confusion is understandable. In the wake of the death's-head ad blitz, city sleuths turned the spotlight on the bogeyman of the moment and immediately revealed bone-chilling evidence of wrongdoing. In articles with titles like "Screech... Bang! And His Career Was Ruined", a "A Hail of a Risk" and "Crash Could Leave You Hurt - and Broke" a trail of tears was described in which taxi drivers with little training, less English, and next-to- no insurance played real-life bumper cars for kicks, maiming everyone from actresses and calligraphers to a blind man and his dog, who were left destitute, and whose infirmities forced them to forsake the Big Apple and move to Texas - yet another health risk.

In the past five years, the number of passengers, pedestrians, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists killed each year by the madly careening yellow cabs has increased by 30 per cent. The number of injured increased by 20 per cent - up to 20,000 people - whereas the badly injured (a category including skull fractures, crushed chests, internal injuries, severe burns and amputations, among other inconveniences) leapt up to more than 8,000. Reading the bad news, New Yorkers in cabs everywhere lit cigarettes in vain attempts to calm their nerves. In their anxiety, some even contemplated the dramatic step of going to work by subway - a decision akin to suicide in some cases.

Inevitably, some groups have benefited from the blackballing of the yellow cabs. Drivers of posh, claret-coloured company cars, like Ahmet Salmeh, try to restain their desire to gloat, but they don't try very hard. "The yellow cabs are crazy," Ahmet observes. "If I am driving and I see the cab with his light on, I move over away, because the minute they see a hand go up by the kerb, over they go like a missile, I am telling you, they don't look, and if I am in their way... pow! Always they are looking for a fare, hop, hop, hop, all the day long."

But the Yellow Cabs may soon rally; taking a taxi has just become the city's newest extreme sport, as well as the easiest way to alarm one's friends and relations - and thrill-seeking New Yorkers have always out- numbered health-conscious New Yorkers by three to one.

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