In defence of an endangered species: New York cabbies

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The Independent Online
IT'S official. Everything you have heard about New York taxi drivers is true. The police say they are dangerous and the mayor has just targeted them in a surely doomed attempt to enforce "civility" in the Big Apple.

Personally, I rather like them. As patient readers may have noticed, I have been shuttling to and from Manhattan for much of the winter, while working on a United Nations report.

I've scrambled into a fair few yellow cabs and met a lot of taxi drivers: my favourite was a former West Indian Test cricketer (OK he represented his country only once, but could recite every ball of the match). And I've few complaints.

But there's no arguing with the figures. The New York Police Department has found that the number of accidents involving taxis has risen by 40 per cent, and resulting injuries by 59 per cent, in the past six years, while other accidents and injuries are falling. And New York assemblyman Scott Stringer calculates that taxis are eight times more likely to crash than other cars.

"A lot of these guys can't drive," says one taxi fleet owner who - wisely - will not be quoted by name. "We don't even let people back out of a garage anymore."

Part of the trouble is that the city's taxi and limousine commission does not test driving ability before they issue a licence - or even keep track of accidents.

Being a new cabbie in New York, says Michael Higgins, editor of Taxi Talk magazine, is like "learning to fly at 50,000 feet".

Last Wednesday, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani singled out a crackdown as part of a "quality of life" drive for his second term in office. New drivers are now to be put on six months' probation to see how they perform. But there's no sign yet of a driving test.

"We don't license people to drive," the commission explains. "We license them to operate a taxi cab, which is a different orientation." So now you know.

o TURN on the television and you may catch an ad from an unlikely environmentalist, local senator Alfonse D'Amato, who is busy portraying himself as a true believer. To listen to his people you would think that Gotham had found a new green Superman.

"From fighting to stop the devastating effects of acid rain on New York's forest and lakes, to winning millions in federal funding for clean-air buses, to being one of the first Republicans to fight for tougher clean- air standards, Al D'Amato is proud of his efforts to protect New York's environment." And so on.

His actual record is rather less heroic. The League of Conservation Voters has just unveiled its annual scorecard on how every member of Congress has performed; Senator D'Amato got just 29 per cent.

But even this represents an astonishing Damascene conversion. For last year, like the fabled Norwegian Eurovision Song Contest entrant, D'Amato scored precisely nul points.

Of course, there's a reason for his new-found enthusiasm. The obvious one. He wants to be recycled into the Senate in the mid-term elections.

And his Republican colleagues are adopting the same strategy all over the country. Having started out, after gaining control of Congress in 1994, by trying to scrap US environmental protection laws - and finding this to be electorally disastrous - they are now under party orders to go out, plant trees, and seem as green as possible.

Come to think of it, it'd be rather fun to have similar green rankings for parliament. I'd put a modest sum on Teresa ("Two trees short of rainforest") Gorman as a strong candidate for the Rotten D'Amato spot. But there'd be some fierce competition.

o TALKING of conversions, it's good to see the US chemical industry getting concerned about the safety of products. The mighty Chemical SpecialistManufacturers Association is putting pressure on government bodies not to endorse a range of clean materials, and the California Environment Protection Agency has readily concurred, saying it is "erring on the side of caution".

Yes, OK, the cleaners do compete with the industry's product but at least the manufacturers are at last raising safety issues, aren't they?

Well, up to a point. The heinous materials they are targetting are ones the people have used safely for centuries - such as water (which has been shown to clean glass better, on its own, than half the commercial products on the market) and lemon juice.