More than a year ago, in a small hearing room downtown, city officials could have ended the career of a Chicago cabdriver who topped the list of citizen complaints.
Zulfiqar Shah was a reckless driver prone to road rage, according to numerous citizen complaints. Among those complaints, he reportedly argued with a pregnant passenger and gunned the accelerator when she tried to leave the cab. Another time, he is alleged to have nearly caused a crash, then chased down the other driver and threatened to shoot him.
In the city's quasi-court for cabbies, what happened to Shah was rare only in that he was ordered off the road at all. A Tribune investigation found that cabbies who are the subject of complaints are almost always hit with fines, not license suspensions or revocations — even for repeated, dangerous conduct.
From some 7,000 complaints made last year, 18 cabdrivers lost their licenses temporarily. Seven had them permanently revoked.
In the wake of two taxi-related pedestrian deaths, recent Tribune stories on dangerous cabbies have revealed that Cook County courts throw out most tickets of repeat offenders, and that even when drivers are convicted of serious traffic offenses, regulators rarely get them off the road.
Citizens' complaints, however, are handled by a separate system in which city agencies wield the power to take the worst cabdrivers off the road without assistance from traditional courts. Citizens can file complaints for all types of misdeeds, from unsafe driving to price gouging.
In focusing on this complaint process, the Tribune found that revocations of chauffeur licenses for unsafe driving are declining — from 1 in 61 cases prosecuted in 2008 to 1 in 279 in 2010.
City officials credit years of aggressive enforcement that, they say, left them with fewer bad cabbies to discipline. Records confirm the number of complaints has fallen since 2008, but still there were nearly 2,000 complaints of reckless cabbies last year.
"We try to make them the best they can be. When that fails, then they're out," said Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which oversees taxi regulation. "Sometimes those are hard calls, and we have to make them."
City officials say their enforcement strategies prioritize safety — not collecting cash.
Yet several cabdrivers told the Tribune the disciplinary process has long seemed fixated on pressuring cabbies to pay fines. In an industry with long hours and meager profits, veteran driver Bill Burns said, the process squeezes generally safe cabbies while watering down discipline for those who "have no business driving a cab."
"It is not about the facts," Burns said of the disciplinary process. "It is about the money."
The city has long touted citizens as the watchdogs of questionable cabbies. To boost awareness of the process, the city plans to make all taxis display bumper stickers asking riders, motorists, pedestrians and others to call 311 to report problems with cabbies.
But the Tribune found that most citizen complaints don't go far, including the most serious that allege reckless driving.
Of nearly 2,000 complaints of recklessness in 2010, the consumer protection department submitted fewer than a quarter to the quasi-court for discipline, according to a Tribune analysis of data obtained under the state's open records law.
City officials said they're not sure why so few made the cut but speculate they lacked enough details or a witness to fill out the written form usually needed to prosecute.
Officials acknowledged the complaint process can be cumbersome — a point on which Cheryl Cornett can agree. The Chicago flight attendant recently filed a complaint against a taxi driver who drove into a line of scattering pedestrians in Streeterville — but only after it took her an hour to navigate the website and reach a city employee by phone who could take her complaint.
Reckless Chicago cabdrivers rarely taken off streets
Complaints typically lead to plea deals and fines, even among chronic offenders
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