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Livery Drivers Leaving Jobs

They're frightened over 9 cab killings in N.Y. this year, despite added protections.


NEW YORK — After the ninth murder, Angel Rodriguez decided he'd finally had enough.

He had been behind the wheel of a livery cab in the Bronx for six years, been held up twice--once brazenly at 11 a.m., the other time at night. During one of the robberies, Rodriguez was beaten so badly that surgeons had to operate on his face.

"I am a target," the 39-year-old driver said. "I have decided to look for another job."

He is not alone. The murders have shaken New York's livery cab industry, with drivers deserting in droves; many who remain behind the wheel are refusing to work at night.

"They are petrified of what's going on," said Ivan Hall, manager of the Best Deal Cab Service.

"We try to advise them the best way we can to be careful, not to pick up strangers on the street," said Maria Martinez, a secretary at the Kiss Car Service, where Rodriguez is still employed while he looks for other work.

Crime against livery cab drivers in neighborhoods generally shunned as unsafe by the operators of metered yellow cabs has been a chronic problem in New York City.

The situation reached epidemic proportions in 1992, when 39 livery drivers were slain. The next year, 37 were murdered.

But as New York's crime rate plummeted in recent years, so did the number of livery cab killings. Last year, the total was 11.

With nine murders during the first four months of this year, police and politicians clearly are alarmed. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has made cutting crime the cornerstone of his administration--and a key issue in his Senate campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In an effort to protect drivers, the Taxi and Limousine Commission recently ordered plexiglass safety partitions and television cameras installed in many of the cabs.

Additional police have been shifted to taxi patrols, and Giuliani announced a plan to give emergency cellular phones programmed to dial 911 to the livery drivers.

But police and cab company officials say that despite the added protections, livery cab drivers still are easy targets.

"Drivers are being used as cash machines," said James Andrade, co-owner of Car 24 on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I think it is a crime of teenagers or drug addicts. One quick blow on the head gets 300, 400 bucks."

Indeed, four teenagers were charged this month in the murder of Jose Olivarez, whose silver Lincoln Town Car was discovered with the windshield splattered with his blood.

City regulations forbid livery drivers to pick up passengers on the street--a privilege accorded to yellow medallion taxis.

But many of the drivers, who are supposed to accept only calls sent by radio dispatchers, break the rules. Part of the motive is profit. Street pickups avoid commissions--which can amount to as much as 35% of the fare--that some of the radio companies require.

"The way to stop this problem is to stop street hails," said Andrade. "The crooks are getting smarter, it's no longer a single man or a group of men. They are using couples. . . . You have to worry who you pick up.

"We have been in operation for 10 years and we haven't been robbed once," he added. "When we take a reservation, we ask for the name and the phone number and the address. We feel this a 100% foolproof way to save lives."

"It is dangerous out there," said Martinez, noting that manufacturers of safety partitions are being swamped with orders.

"It's unbelievable. There is a waiting list for July for partitions," she said. "But if it's a holdup, it's better than nothing."

As for Rodriguez, he praises police patrols that have been stopping livery cabs to check on the safety of drivers.

"What we need most," he said, "is the police to be there, checking on whoever the drivers are carrying and not waiting for you to go through a red light or make a wrong turn."

Meanwhile, he is thinking about going back to his old job as a janitor.

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