Seven New York limousine drivers murdered at wheel

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The Independent US

They say New York is a safer place these days, but try asking the thousands who scrape a living driving livery cabs, the black or silver limousines - usually Lincoln Town Cars with more dents than shine - that are as ubiquitous in the city as yellow cabs. For them, this is a time to fear.

They say New York is a safer place these days, but try asking the thousands who scrape a living driving livery cabs, the black or silver limousines - usually Lincoln Town Cars with more dents than shine - that are as ubiquitous in the city as yellow cabs. For them, this is a time to fear.

They are right to be nervous. Since the start of this year, no fewer than seven livery drivers have been murdered at the wheel, almost always at night and in areas of the city few yellow cabs would dare to roam. Last year 11 livery drivers were slain. No yellow cab driver has been killed since 1997.

The rash of killings - the speaker of the city council, Peter Vallone, spoke of "assassinations" and "carnage" this week - has set the city authorities on high alert. It is especially troubling for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose run against Hillary Clinton for a US Senate seat in New York state is built upon the public perception that crime in New York City has been tamed under his leadership. Mr Giuliani, therefore, has pushed through a series of drastic steps designed to end the killings. He has ordered livery drivers to equip their cars, which are mostly driver-owned, either with bullet-proof dividers between the front and back or with digital surveillance cameras. He has also promised grants of $300 per vehicle to help meet the costs.

Meanwhile, a special livery task force created by the city police department earlier this year is to be boosted from 40 to 300 officers. Some will work in plain clothes, driving decoy limousines. Others will patrol "safe zones", to be established at crossroads in some of the most dangerous areas. Drivers will be able to stop in the zones and signal for help.

Among the victims was Luis Francisco Perez, whose body was flown on Tuesday from John F Kennedy Airport to his native town in the Dominican Republic for burial. Killed at a desolate corner in the Bronx at half past midnight last Friday, Perez, like many drivers, was a recent immigrant. He had a toddler son, Luigi, and would have turned 30 on Monday.

The new safety regulations will not be applied to cars that serve only corporate clients at the high rises of Midtown and the financial district. But of the roughly 30,000 livery cars that ply the city, by far the greatest number operate a long way from the heart of Manhattan. Linked by two-way radio to dispatchers of whichever fleet they belong to, they listen for addresses to pick up fares.

Under city rules, they are not meant to stop for street fares, though most do to make extra money. But stopping for passengers on the street, especially in the small hours, can be especially risky.

Fernando Mateo, the president of the Federation of Cab Drivers, said: "These drivers are trying to put food on the table for their families. When they see a fare with $5, they are going to stop."

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