Does a Taxi Driver Need to Hurt Someone Before the TLC Takes Action?

The first thing I noticed was a blur of yellow to my left, and a split second later a bump on my arm and something brushing my leg. I had just crossed Fifth Avenue, heading east on 72nd Street on my bike. I was riding, as is my custom, as close to the parked cars as I could while minimizing the hazard of getting doored. It was about 10:10 on a lovely March morning and traffic was light.

Streetsblog_TLC_4.jpgPhoto: Ken Coughlin.

I managed to stay upright as the cab swept by me. Alarmed and shaken, I screamed and the driver hit the brakes. Adrenaline pumping, I banged on the front passenger-side window and yelled that he had just hit me. He raised his arms in a "What am I supposed to do?" gesture of helplessness. His fare in the back seat leaned forward to say something and the driver pulled away. I made a mental note of the plate number. Catching the cab at the next light, I loudly proclaimed my intention of reporting the incident to the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC). The driver appeared unconcerned.

I deliberated long and hard about whether to press my case. The driver was probably just trying to make ends meet and save up a little by working grueling 12-hour shifts. Hell, I used to drive a cab myself. But I also thought of my responsibility to other cyclists. If the driver had swiped me on a four-lane boulevard in broad daylight, couldn’t he do the same to someone else, with perhaps a devastating outcome? I decided to file a complaint.

The hearing took place several weeks later. I had a choice to testify by phone or in person in Queens (I live and work in Manhattan). Not wanting to take a half-day away from work, I opted for the surreal experience of being sworn in by a judge while sitting at my own desk. The driver, through his lawyer, did not dispute that he had hit me. His only defense was that he hadn’t realized he had done so. To me, it seemed an open-and-shut case: Driver admits hitting cyclist, driver will face some consequences.

The judge’s ruling came in the mail a few days later.

"There was no allegation of speeding or reckless driving during the hearing and certainly no proof of same," it read. "Thus a prima facie case for the violations charged has not been established and the Summons and charges are dismissed."

In effect, the judge was saying that it’s okay for a cab driver to strike a cyclist as long as there is no evidence of reckless driving. But, I wondered, isn’t the mere fact that a cyclist was hit "prima facie" evidence that the driver failed to exercise due care?

I sought out the opinion of my friend and cycling attorney par excellence, Adam White. "While I’m sure it was upsetting getting brushed by this guy," he told me, "a judge is left with determining findings based upon the evidence presented. This guy presented a reasonable case and took it seriously enough to hire an attorney." Adam said the TLC appeared to be applying a recklessness standard and that I had not alleged recklessness. "Aside from that," he added, "the civil justice system is available to people who are injured or suffer property damage." Adam also noted that my case might have been strengthened had I shown up in person.

Perhaps I should have appeared in person, but it was undisputed that the driver hit me through no fault of my own. Without a finding of recklessness or negligence, any such case would not appear on a driver’s record. Couldn’t a driver repeatedly sideswipe cyclists, throughout his career presumably, and pay no price? What if this particular driver has, say, a vision problem that causes him to repeatedly come close to or brush more vulnerable road users? What if he is simply habitually careless? It appears that there is no mechanism within the existing TLC system to address such possibilities.

My guess is that few cyclists would pursue the matter as I did. For anything to appear on such a driver’s record, there would have to be an injury serious enough to suggest to a TLC judge that recklessness might be involved. But by then it could be too late.

  • Kudos to you for filing a complaint and thanks for the link. I’m sure if more people file complaints, behavior will change. The mere act of the driver hiring an attorney, having to spend time thinking and defending his actions (assuming he has a conscience) will probably serve to make him a safer driver in the future.

    Still the system of enforcement and recording a driving record properly need to change. Relying on testimony from the victim only is insufficient for a publicly regulated entity like a taxi cab or city bus. How do dead cyclists testify?

    A video camera in every cab recording incidents of distracted driving, reckless driving and speeding would greatly reduce dangerous crashes and incidents on the road.

  • J

    Other states have law requiring a 3 foot clearance be given when cars pass cyclists. If New York had this law, the driver in this case would clearly have violated it and would incur some sort of penalty.

    The real solution, though, is protected bike lanes, where reckless cars are physically separated from bicycles, and vehicle space reductions, so that reckless driving isn’t physically possible.

  • Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

    In NJ at least there is a responsibility for drivers to use “due care” when passing or any number of actions.

    If NY has such “due care” language then I would think that this driver is in violation of at least careless driving.

    I wonder what the judge would have ruled if the cabbie had sideswiped a car?

    Typical anti-bike/ped bias Bullshit!

  • I’m not a lawyer but I thought “leaving the scene of an accident” was a violation.

  • Frank Todisco

    Ken, in retrospect, I wonder if you also should have filed an accident report on the scene with the police. And gotten the driver’s information (via the TLC, since he left the scene) so you could report the accident to the driver’s or cab company’s insurer. I thought all “accidents” were to be filed with the police, which, together with notifying the insurer, gets the incident on the driver’s driving record. (And, in this case, leaving the scene too.) Reporting it to the police also covers you in case, later on, you realize you were more hurt than you thought (which can be covered up by the adrenaline rush).

  • Ian Turner

    IIRC, reporting requirements only kick in when there is injury or property damage over $500. Not sure about hit and run, but there may be a threshold there as well.

  • boomshanka

    As an aside, I find that if I’m going to ride with traffic, it’s safer to take the whole lane than it is to ride close to parked cars. If there’s enough room to make drivers think think they can squeeze through they’ll try. If you’re clearly blocking their path they might get pissed off but they’re less likely to hit you intentionally.

  • a Hells kitchen cyclist

    I filed a TLC complaint against a taxi drive who at the advice of his client (who was prolly late to a meeting) drove across the bike lanes and up the exit driveway to the Chelsea piers. it was marked do not enter. the “judge” all but said to the driver “lie to get out of this” and said repeately that this “court” was the only one in the world where citizens are allowed to file charges. i think the judges are paid by the TLC, no? the judge kept shushing me when i sighed or sucked in my breath at the judges statements. clearly this court is just for show.
    the only justice i got was that the driver had to show up in court and his time was wasted. as my driver had switched to a night shift it was no $ loss for him. he was fined $250.
    i try and file whenever taxi’s are at fault but do not request a hearing as it’s a joke. i do want their to be a record of reckless drivers tho.

  • Gwin

    For what it’s worth, I’ve gone to TLC court three times with complaints about drivers (generally along the lines of harassment/reckless driving; none of them hit me or anything like that). Charges were brought against the drivers all three times — they all represented themselves.

  • Gwin

    …oh and I meant to say: these were complaints where I was a cyclist, not a pedestrian.

  • Everard Bone

    Good for you for reporting it. At least there will be something in the guy’s record.

    This happened to me and my partner last summer on Court Street in Brooklyn. A black car zipped by, side-swiping him pretty hard while sitting on his horn. The car sped off, but not before I memorized his plate (I’ll never forget it–T49994TC). I called 911, but once they came, they said they couldn’t do anything since they hadn’t witnessed it. They basically told me not to make a complaint, since nothing would come of it. I thought, well, what if the guy shot him? It’s ridiculous, that they can only do something if they have evidence or if they themselves witnessed it.

    I reported it to TLC, but they said that plate didn’t match anything in their database, so I may have had it wrong (T499947C??). So, nothing was done, and that jerk is still speeding around Brooklyn.

    I think the moral here is, if you get hit by a cab or a car, FALL, and make sure you get a bruise or a scrape. Take a picture, and bring it with you to court. It seems like that’s the only way.

  • Peter from Stuy Town

    Ken,

    After getting cut off on Fifth Avenue once, I did file a TLC complaint and got a hearing. The driver brought a lawyer. No lawyer for me, but I was well-prepared. The driver and his attorney weren’t, offering no credible explanation, only saying he had signaled and “everyone was fine,” like nothing had happened.

    The judge didn’t buy it and fined him $250. I must say I didn’t feel bad for his family.

    On the other hand, my wife was nearly hit on Lexington Ave. and had a better case, but the judge sided with the driver.

    Maybe it is the luck of the draw.

  • > I was riding, as is my custom, as close to the parked cars as I could while minimizing the hazard of getting doored

    You did everything right after this. This was your mistake.

    The law says you should take your lane.

    Safety says to take your lane.

    Take your lane.

  • Ken Coughlin

    Kaja, the law says I should take the lane? Can you cite me something in the regs on that? I thought the law is that I may take a lane. Frankly, I have never felt comfortable with raging drivers breathing down my neck and I find that no matter where I am in the lane, they’ll pass me as close as they think they can get away with.

  • My understanding is that the NYC amendments to this,

    http://www.safeny.com/bike-vt.htm#sec1232

    directly contradict the NYS laws; that is, outside the five boroughs, you must ride on the right shoulder; but inside the city, you must ride inside the rightmost lane (which can include the shoulder) or, if the roadway is >40 feet wide, in the leftmost lane.

    If a bicycle lane is available and the cyclist thinks it’s safe, then you must use the bike lane.

    https://www.nysdot.gov/divisions/operating/opdm/local-programs-bureau/biking

    In short, you’re free to ride in the shoulder, but you’re also free to take your lane, until you hit Westchester or Nassau. So, take your lane.

    I am a driver, and I promise you, no driver will hit you if they can see you — but they may well accidentally kill you if they’re passing you while you’re in the shoulder, and you hit a pothole and fall into their car. (I believe that statistically-speaking 2% of bike accidents are caused by car hits from behind, between five to seven o’clock.)

    That accident will be “no one’s” fault.

  • I should have said: The law protects you taking your lane, and not doing so is incredibly dangerous, so take your lane or risk a meaningless death.

    Begging pardon on the doublepost.

  • Chris

    Well, when you’re trying to demonstrate negligence or recklessness, usually you have to demonstrate that you suffered damages or an injury. So, to answer the question posed by the headline, YES, probably, nothing will happen judicially to punish a driver unless someone can demonstrate an actual injury.

  • Matt10002

    IF YOU GET HURT BY A CAB DRIVER CALL THE POLICE NOT THE TLC!!!

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