Page last updated at 09:34 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 10:34 UK

New York cabbies angry about overcharging claims

By Peter White
BBC Radio 4

Never the most cheerful bunch at the best of times, New York cabbies are at the moment in a considerable strop.

Cab near Empire State building

I experienced their mood at first hand on a recent trip to the city when, within hours of arriving, I was asked to leave a cab, because I'd changed my mind about where I wanted to go.

"You'll change your mind, then accuse me of overcharging you for the journey," said the cab driver. "I'm fed up with being branded for being on the fiddle."

The drivers' governing body, the Limousine and Taxi Commission, has accused the drivers of a concerted scam over a period of two years which, they say, has resulted in overcharging to the tune of more than $8m, on almost two million journeys.

The fraud, it's being suggested, is fairly simply achieved.

There are two separate per-mile rates in New York, one for inner-city, one for suburban journeys - the latter is more expensive than the former.

So all a driver needs to do, they claim, is flick the meter from one setting to the other, produce what looks like a bona fide printout of the bill, and all but the very best-informed passengers are none the wiser.

Bad apples

The commission claimed that some 3,000 of New York's 36,000 drivers have been doing this on a fairly regular basis, with one driver accused of, and now dismissed for, 574 offences.

You would have to be stupid to do such a thing, knowing that there was equipment which could detect it
Beresford Simmons, taxi driver

But the drivers are now fighting back, incensed at the slur on their good name, and trading accusations of their own.

Now aware of the problem, I took a ride with Beresford Simmons, who's been a driver in New York for 35 years.

Having firmly established his credentials as a rock-solid cabbie by telling me that he'd had Jackie Onassis as a fare in the back of his cab, he proceeded to detail the reasons why the commission's claims were out of order.

His main argument was that if the GPS equipment which had been installed to track journeys was so good, how come it had taken the commission two years to detect this so-called scam?

Listen to Peter White's report for You and Yours here after 1300 BST (1200 GMT)

"You would have to be stupid to do such a thing, knowing that there was equipment which could detect it," Beresford told me.

He acknowledged that there were bad apples among the city's cabbies, but he insisted that to imply that there was a widespread conspiracy was nonsense.

He also reminded me that drivers did now have to produce printouts, and that New Yorkers were not known for their naivety when it comes to being overcharged.

'Computer error'

What he did admit was that there may have been some errors because of the way the meters were set up. Some people, he said, might have made an "honest mistake" and pressed the wrong setting button.

The first accusation:
30,000 drivers incorrectly used the out-of-city rate at least once
3,000 did it repeatedly
Customers were overcharged by $8.3m
The revised version:
A "significant number" of cases resulted in no overcharging
Many drivers flipped to the out-of-city rate only at the end of a ride
Drivers may often have made simple mistakes

And it does seem that the drivers' indignation is having some effect.

At hearings on the dispute, the commission has now acknowledged that the number of cases of overcharging may have been exaggerated, and that quite a few could be put down to that universal panacea, "computer error".

There's also been a hint that an element of the problem may be that drivers who have to pay for the lease of their cars are themselves being overcharged, and are seeking to make that money back from the customers.

It does seem that, as a new chairman of the commission takes up position, conciliation could be in the air.

But the drivers are still calling for an apology at what they see as the blanket blackening of their name, and the commission still wants to install even more sophisticated equipment which would warn people if they were being overcharged.

Personally, my own very unscientific experience of about a dozen journeys was that charging seemed pretty fair and consistent - but whether that's because the cat is now out of the bag, and everyone was being particularly careful, I have no way of knowing!

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