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Friday, Apr 18, 2014
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Taxi firms, cabbies spar over safety measures

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TAMPA — The fatal shooting of a taxicab driver this month has people in the business calling for added safety measures.

An association representing drivers is pushing for bulletproof windows between front and back seats, saying drivers are vulnerable if a passenger attacks them from behind, even to the accidental discharge of a firearm.

A group of taxi company owners rejects the idea of installing windows but says video cameras in the vehicles might act as an effective deterrent.

Either way, added security will come only on a voluntary basis: A 1989 opinion from the Attorney General’s Office says Hillsborough County leaders cannot compel cab companies to install safety devices.

The discussion comes in the wake of the fatal shooting Dec. 8 of 56-year-old cab driver John Dooley. Police launched a search for two passengers suspected in the slaying, and two days later they arrested Devante Bell, 19, of Tampa on a charge of first-degree murder.

Dooley had driven the two to the location they requested, at Eskimo Avenue and North 18th Street, police said. He was shot there, and the suspects ran from the scene, police said.

The case remains under investigation.

The Tampa Bay Area Taxi Driver’s Association wrote a letter this week seeking a bulletproof window requirement from the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates the licensing of drivers and cab companies as well as vehicle inspection,

LeLisa Hika, chairman of the association, knows what it’s like to have a passenger’s pistol shoved in his face. The 32-year-old Tampa man who has been driving cabs for seven years was robbed at gunpoint in 2008 by a passenger he picked up in Ybor City.

He considers himself lucky to be alive.

“If I had a bulletproof shield or window of some sort in between myself and the passenger, that may not have happened,” Hika said of the robbery.

Hika said if a robber points a gun at him through the driver’s or passenger’s window, he might just drive away.

Aside from the 1989 ruling, by then-Attorney General Robert Butterworth, mandating safety windows is a bad idea in the view of taxi owners because it’s impractical.

Brook Negusei, president of Cab Plus and vice president of The Tampa Bay Taxicab and Limousine Coalition, said a window would stop the flow of air conditioning to the back seat.

Modern taxies have air conditioning vents in the back, but they’re not enough to cool passengers alone, he said. It takes the vents from the front, as well.

“The passengers would be very hot,” Negusei said. “This is Florida, after all.”

The most sensible deterrent, he said, would be surveillance cameras that save footage to the internet so a perpetrator cannot destroy it.

Negusei said he also thinks a bulletproof window would hurt the city’s reputation, especially considering taxi driver slayings are “not frequent at all.”

“Tourists would think we are a dangerous city,” Negusei said. “We are not.”

The cost of surveillance cameras, according to Negusei, is $100 to $150 each while the cost of a bulletproof window is $200 to $250.

The Taxi Cab and Limousine Coalition will discuss this issue in the coming months. It can recommend but not order members to install cameras.

The coalition’s membership includes the major cab companies, such as Yellow Cab, United Cab, Embassy Limo and Ambassador Limo, as well as a number of drivers.

If a cab company doesn’t want to do the installation, Negusei said, taxi drivers could take it upon themselves to install a camera if they own the vehicle or lease it from the company.

“They are independent contractors,” he said. “If they think it adds to their safety, they should do it.”

Still, Hika wants to see county government get behind added safety measures for drivers.

That could only happen if Attorney General Pam Bondi revisits Butterworth’s 1989 opinion.

A Bondi spokesperson said her office can act only if it receives a new request from Hillsborough County authorities.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who serves on the Public Transportation Commission, said he needs to study the issue further before considering requesting a new attorney general’s opinion.

If driver safety turns out to be a legitimate concern, the county will address it in some manner, Crist said.

“What is most important is safety for the rider and safety for the driver,” he said.

Added Hika, “Something needs to be done. Right now the drivers have no protection.”

 

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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