Perpetually rushed New Yorkers have been telling cabbies to "step on it" for as long as there have been taxis, but the city wants to put the brakes on that hurry-up habit, in part by attacking the financial incentive to speed.
Cabs could be outfitted with black-box-style data recorders and devices that would sound warnings — or even pause the fare meter — for going too fast, even as speed limits on most city streets would drop from 30 to 25 mph.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made the proposals as part of his broader safe-streets plan, says drivers of New York's signature yellow cabs rightly should play a particular role in his push to curb traffic crashes.
"They set the tone on our streets," de Blasio said.
While traffic advocates applaud the ideas, they are getting a bumpy reception at taxi stands. Cabbies fear friction with passengers and feel they're being scapegoated, and riders say they're torn between the drive for safety and the need for speed.
"When I'm in a rush, anything is appreciated," New Yorker Emily Baltimore said as she waited in a cab line outside Penn Station this week.
New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission says it's too soon to say when the city might enact the traffic safety plan, which also includes more taxi-rule enforcers, stiffer penalties for cabbies' driving violations and many provisions aimed at all cars, not just taxis.
Deadly auto wrecks have dropped sharply in the nation's biggest city, from 701 in 1990 to an all-time low of 249 in 2011, as officials redesigned dangerous intersections and made other changes. But recent pedestrian deaths have pushed the issue to the forefront in the first months of de Blasio's mayoralty.
Nine-year-old Cooper Stock was in a Manhattan crosswalk, holding his father's hand, when a left-turning taxi hit them Jan. 10.
Cooper was killed. The driver was ticketed but hasn't been criminally charged, though authorities are still investigating. Under current rules, the accident wasn't grounds to suspend his otherwise clean license. The taxi commission says he's stopped driving voluntarily.
Cooper's mother says cabbies need to be held accountable for making streets safer.
"They should be the best drivers in the city. They are professional drivers," said Dana Lerner, a psychotherapist. While her main goal is tougher consequences for taxi crashes, she feels black boxes and other technology could deter bad driving.
The results would ripple through traffic, as cabbies' driving "dictates behavioral norms to other drivers," said Paul Steely White, who runs Transportation Alternatives, a group backing de Blasio's plan.
While New York's more than 50,000 cabbies may have a hard-driving image, they note that they have eight hours a day worth of reasons to be careful.
Just about 4 percent of the roughly 200,000 vehicles involved in accidents citywide last year were yellow cabs, according to an Associated Press analysis of police statistics. A 2004 study showed taxis had a below-average crash rate, on a per-mile-driven basis, though a 2010 city report suggests they play a bigger role in collisions that kill or seriously injure pedestrians. Taxi and car-service cabs were involved in 13 percent of those crashes, though they account for only about 2 percent of the cars on the road, the Transportation Department report showed.
Cabbies feel de Blasio's traffic safety plan unduly singles them out for scrutiny, a sentiment hardly lessened when a news camera caught the mayor's official, police-driven vehicle speeding two days after he unveiled the plan. And taxi drivers and owners fear slowing down could mean losing business.
"People want to go, hurry, because they don't have a lot of time. They spend money to save the time," says Jawad Habib, a cabbie for 21 years who says he makes sure to know traffic rules. A lower speed limit could lengthen taxi trips enough, he fears, that "who's going to want to sit in the cab? ... They'll go to the bus."
The drivers' union, the Taxi Workers' Alliance, and the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade owners' group raised some red flags at a City Council hearing this week, though the owners' organization supports the lower speed limit and some other ideas.
Some limousine and car-service fleets around the country have seen accidents drop by 50 percent or more after installing data recorders, said Matthew Daus, a former New York taxi commissioner who's now president of the International Association of Transportation Regulators. But the devices can be unpopular with drivers and can bump up against legal questions in an industry in which many drivers are independent contractors, not employees.
San Francisco transit officials decided last year to require taxi equipment that harvests location, ride length and other information, both to create cab-hailing apps and to analyze taxi service.
It's unclear whether anyone has developed devices linking speed and fare meters, but experts say it's feasible.
Vehicle security-camera company VerifEye Technologies Inc., for example, recently started offering a feature that can send a cab company a message if a car breaks the speed limit, discerned by a combination of GPS and speed-zone maps, Vice President Terry Walker said. The Markham, Ontario-based company has mapped Toronto, Chicago and a handful of other cities so far.
The system could be adapted to pause a meter if regulators allowed it, Walker said.
Meanwhile, cabbie Yick Li relies on his own anti-speeding system: himself.
After 32 years behind a taxi wheel, he simply says no if a passenger urges him to speed or break other rules. Some riders gripe, he said, but many understand.
"They sit back, relax, let us do the driving."