Outside Penn Station

Taxis wait for customers outside of Penn Station. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna / February 22, 2012)

Step into a cab in many major cities, including Baltimore, and you'll wind up sitting behind a clear, bullet-resistant shield that separates you from the driver.

But one taxicab company operating in Baltimore wants to replace the state-mandated protective guard with security cameras. Baltimore Taxi Affiliation Services, which operates 100 cabs under the Arrow Cab and Baltimore City Taxi brands, recently asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to consider amending state regulations to allow for either a shield or a camera in Baltimore cabs.

The PSC, which oversees taxicabs in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, is soliciting comments to determine whether to pursue the company's proposal. The regulator is scheduled to consider the matter in April.

About 1,150 taxicabs are licensed to operate in Baltimore City, where shields became mandatory in 1995. The partition is not required in Baltimore County cabs.

Meanwhile, the idea of replacing partitions with security cameras appears not to have wide support in the local taxi and driver community.

"Shield is protection," said Tsegaye Yitbarek, who has been a taxi driver in the city for 15 years. "Camera is a witness."

Other drivers and companies also expressed concern about the cost of installing cameras, especially as drivers are now paying more for gas. And some say plainly that shields are the best prevention against crime.

The Public Service Commission's staff said in a report last month that it was "not convinced that the security camera will reduce crime as effectively as the mandated partition given the fact that a perpetrator's opportunity for harm increases without the barrier of the partition."

However, Baltimore Taxi says its move toward more a fuel-efficient fleet means newer vehicles such as Scions will have less space to accommodate security shields than the traditional Ford Crown Victorias. Moreover, the company argues, security cameras are just as effective as shields in providing protection.

"Security cameras will deter crimes and have proven to do so in a number of venues," said Michael Levine, Baltimore Taxi's chief executive officer. "We feel that it's an alternative to partitions."

"We'll give drivers the choice," he added. "If you want a partition, we'll give you a partition. If you want a camera, we'll give you a camera."

Cities across the country have different rules governing taxicab safety.

In New York, a vast majority of yellow cabs are required to have partitions, though the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission allows the installation of digital security cameras instead of shields on independently owned and operated taxicabs.

In Chicago, a 2007 ordinance allowed taxicab owners to install security cameras instead of partitions, but owners were at first slow to do so, The Chicago Tribune reported. Recently, though, thousands of Windy City cabs have switched to cameras, the paper said.

Since shields became mandatory in Baltimore City cabs, no driver has been killed and assaults against drivers have been few, according to the Public Service Commission's staff report.

Citing statistics provided by Baltimore police, the PSC staff said 54 robberies involving taxicabs were reported for 2010 and 2011. Baltimore police could not provide data on assaults against drivers, according to the PSC report.

Still, the job can be dangerous. In December, a taxi driver was shot in the back in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore. Police said the victim had been driving with two passengers when one pulled a gun and demanded money.

Veolia Transportation, the largest taxi company in Baltimore, which operates under the Checker, Yellow and Sun names with a 550-car fleet, opposes changes to the state's taxicab shield regulations.

Veolia said it had installed shields that surround the driver's seat in smaller cars, such as the Toyota Prius.