Tribune Investigation: Courts drop most cases against frequently ticketed cabdrivers

A taxi on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. (Scott Strazzante/Tribune)

By the time Maxwell Gabriel allegedly crashed his taxi into a pedestrian, he had been stopped 22 times by police in the last 3 1/2 years.

According to the citations, Gabriel had sped at twice the posted limit, blown through stop signs and caused three other crashes before the woman was hit while crossing Michigan Avenue in June. In all, he had racked up 34 tickets since 2008 — well beyond the city's three-a-year limit for flagging dangerous cabdrivers.

But almost all the tickets were wiped from his driving record, allowing Gabriel to renew his taxi license year after year.

That's because Cook County judges dismissed the vast majority of his tickets, as they have done with many other heavily ticketed cabbies, the Tribune has found.

An analysis by the newspaper suggests that a far higher percentage of tickets are thrown out for cabbies on average than for regular drivers. The frequent court dismissals have repeatedly helped cabbies keep their chauffeur's licenses — including drivers who were later blamed for injuring or killing pedestrians.

"It's really scary," said Veronica Andrews, the pedestrian allegedly hit by Gabriel's taxi. "These cabdrivers are licensed to drive the public. They should be held to a higher standard."

In the wake of two recent deaths involving taxi drivers, the Tribune's findings have also frustrated safety advocates.

"When you have these repeat offenders who are still on the road, that's creating a lot of danger and a lot of unsafe conditions," said Ethan Spotts of the Chicago advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance. "People shouldn't be afraid to walk."

An advocate for cabdrivers, George Lutfallah, said he wasn't surprised by the Tribune's findings. Cabbies are likely ticketed more because they spend so much time on the road, he said, and their dismissal rates are higher because they are far more aggressive at fighting tickets to keep their licenses and jobs. But he supports weeding out dangerous cabdrivers who give the trade a bad name.

"If the city can crack down on some of these really bad guys … and let (the rest of) us do our jobs, I think the industry would be a lot better off," said Lutfallah, who publishes a Chicago cab newspaper.

A top city official has pushed for tighter restrictions on cabdrivers, labeling many as poor drivers.

But a review of court records shows city government may share the blame for undermining one of its own key criteria for flagging dangerous cabbies.

Three strikes

City government has long relied on two separate systems to take problem cabdrivers off the road: a citizen complaint process — riders report taxis for reckless behavior or other problems — and the traffic courts.

For years the city has checked each cabdriver's traffic record annually. In the past, anyone found guilty of three or more moving violations could see their chauffeur's license yanked. But beginning this summer, such nonrenewals became automatic for cabbies with at least three moving violations, city officials said.

The tougher policy coincides with two high-profile pedestrian deaths involving taxi drivers.

In June, police said cabdriver Yao Ofori skidded across multiple lanes of rain-slicked Illinois Street and plowed into a man on the sidewalk, killing him instantly.

About two months later, police said a cab driven by Mohammed M. Ahmed, 40, of Chicago, crashed into an elderly woman crossing Sheridan Road, causing fatal injuries.

In response to a separate city study of cars hitting pedestrians, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein blamed the problem in part on taxi drivers. The city found that cabdrivers were involved in more than one of every four pedestrian crashes downtown.