By Deepi Hajela
When a cab driver tried to get Matthew Daus to pay a fare with cash instead of a credit card, Daus knew that wasn't right. As the head of the commission that regulates city taxis, he would know.
He also knew that there was a bigger problem with drivers not abiding by the rules, judging by the complaints that were coming into the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
So he decided it was time for "Operation: Secret Rider" - an undercover operation in which inspectors take rides around the city to gauge whether drivers are following the rules.
Since last week, between 60 and 100 commission inspectors and police officers have been posing as everyday New Yorkers and tourists and looking for violations of the "Taxi Passengers Bill of Rights."
That would mean drivers doing things they're not supposed to - like using cell phones (hands-free or not) while the car is in motion, not taking credit cards for payment, or not paying attention to traffic laws.
While most drivers abide by the rules, "There are always a small number of drivers that deviate or get off the right path," Daus said.
"This initiative reminds them to get back on."
There are on average 240-million taxi rides a year, according to TLC figures. In each of the past two fiscal years, there have been fewer than 20 000 complaints, averaging about 55 a day. The city has more than 13 000 taxis.
Under the program - similar to secret shopper-type programs used to judge customer service in stores - a driver who refuses to allow a credit card faces a fine of between $150 to $350.
Using a phone while the cab is in motion or being rude to a passenger carries a fine as well as points violations. Getting enough points within a certain time period can lead to a license suspension or revocation.
Daus said the program could also reward good behaviour. Drivers who do well could be considered for the TLC's annual recognition program, which gives out things like free hotel stays and meals to cabbies who perform exceptionally well.
It's the "slap on the wrist, pat on the back theory", he said.
While the TLC has had efforts in place to monitor cabdriver compliance with issues like cell phone use, this is the first effort to monitor credit card acceptance.
Credit-card readers have been a recent addition to most cabs, and the subject of heated controversy.
The rules requiring all cabs to have global-positioning system technology and video screens that let passengers pay by credit card, check news stories and monitor the location of the cab were met with resistance by some drivers. About 68 percent of New York cabs have had the technology installed so far.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy group, organised two strikes over the issue last year, over fears that the equipment could be used to track drivers' movements, concerns that drivers get stuck paying fees to cover credit card transactions, and questions about whether the technology could be trusted to function reliably all the time.
And the organisation is not thrilled with the undercover program, saying those issues still exist.
"It's sneaky, it's underhanded," said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the group.
"They're holding a sword over drivers' necks."
And with the installation has come complaints from riders who have had drivers try to refuse credit cards. Among their excuses: The credit card reader doesn't work and saying that there is a charge to the passenger; there is not.
When Thomas Trocco tried to use a credit card a couple of weeks ago to pay for his trip from LaGuardia Airport to Brooklyn, his first credit card swipe didn't go through; the driver refused to let him try again and asked for cash.
It made Trocco mad enough that he complained to the city.
"The drivers went out on strike, they lost their battle," he said. "Its required of them" to take cards.
Daus echoed that sentiment. "This is a policy, whether they like it or not," he said.
Mauvis Ledford said he would be much more likely to take cabs if he felt he could reliably use a credit card. Hes been told on more than one occasion that the card reader was broken.
"I don't understand why they don't like it," the 25-year-old Manhattanite said. "A lot of times I wanted to take a taxi but I didn't have the cash."
Henry Mensah, a Ghanaian immigrant who has been driving a cab for three years, is more than happy to accept credit cards from his passengers.
"So far as they pay me I'm fine with it," he said, sitting in his taxi outside Madison Square Garden.
His complaint is that sometimes passengers don't always know how to use the system.
He said he's lost fares when passengers exit thinking they've paid but haven't completed the payment process. He said he thought it would be better for the taxi commission to make sure people knew how to use the system.
"The best thing is to educate the public," he said. - Sapa-AP