Len Gelstein’s taxi nightmare started, he said, after he slipped into a yellow cab at Kennedy International Airport. It ended after a harrowing $71 ride, he said, and a call to the police.
Mr. Gelstein said his driver got lost and ended up in a line of garbage trucks on a bridge unfamiliar to Mr. Gelstein. The cabby drove more than 70 miles per hour, Mr. Gelstein said, and even backed up on the highway. The price wound up being almost double what the trip ordinarily costs.
Outraged, Mr. Gelstein called the police to ask if he had to pay the fare. Told he would spend the night in jail if he did not, he complied. Then he turned to another agency for recourse.
“It was a remarkable ride,” Mr. Gelstein testified on a recent Monday before a judge at a Taxi and Limousine Commission hearing.
Complaints about the work of cabdrivers seem to follow the adage about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything. This has long been a problem for the commission, which relies on customer complaints to monitor drivers. Complaints are filed in only about 1 in every 11,000 rides, and the customers who do lodge complaints often do not follow through. In 2008, less than a quarter of those who agreed to testify at a hearing showed up.
In December, in an effort to make the process easier, the commission began allowing those who file complaints to testify by phone. This year, about a quarter of the complainants who have opted for a hearing chose to testify by phone. (Mr. Gelstein was among them.)
The commission’s chairman, Matthew W. Daus, considers the program a success thus far. Now, half of the customers who say they will testify in person and half of those who agree to testify by phone do so.
One such customer was Jane Bills, who filed a complaint in January, saying she had been forced to pay her fare in cash.
“Is the guy, the driver, there?” Ms. Bills asked over the phone during a hearing on Aug. 17. Told that he was, Ms. Bills began to tell her story.
She said she had hailed a cab after a dinner with friends. The driver, Khris Singh, insisted that she would have to pay in cash, she said, telling her the credit-card reader was broken, although she said it appeared to be fine. She said that she rolled down her window slightly and that Mr. Singh rolled it up from the front.
Fed up, she had the cab stop short of her destination, paid the fare — in cash, with exact change — and got out.
Hearings like Ms. Bills’s often feature competing narratives and limited verifiable truth. (Mr. Singh’s lawyer, M. Daniel Bach, said that his client did not remember driving Ms. Bills and that she could not prove he was lying about the credit-card machine.)
If found guilty, drivers, who must appear in person to testify, can be fined or have their licenses suspended or revoked. Those found not guilty still pay a price, because they are unable to earn fares while in court. “For a taxi driver, the minute a complaint is filed, the penalty begins,” said Bhairavi Desai, the founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
Some drivers, like Mr. Singh, hire lawyers. Others cannot afford to, including Yah Nuamah, who was accused of hitting a car with his cab and leaving the scene. When Mr. Nuamah was called by the judge, he was asked if he wanted to return with a lawyer. He could not afford one, he said. He would represent himself.
At the intersection of driver and passenger is an administrative law judge. The judge hears testimony from passengers, who are sometimes angry because drivers refused to transport them or did not take the route they requested, and from drivers, some angry as well, who sometimes must represent themselves despite speaking little English.
One of the judges, Patrick McAuliffe, said he saw the conflict as a deeper one, between the public’s right to good service and safe streets and the drivers’ right to make a living in a difficult job.
“It can get very dramatic,” Judge McAuliffe said. “How could it not?”
When witnesses testify by phone, one bit of courtroom drama vanishes: the moment when driver and customer meet face to face. A personal connection is lost, said Ms. Desai of the taxi workers alliance, as is, in many cases, the chance for an apology or explanation from the driver. “Once they see them in that environment,” she said, “it softens a lot of people, and they realize that, wait a minute, this driver could lose their livelihood over our matter.”
Ms. Bills still seemed to realize the stakes. “I know I filed a complaint,” she said, somewhat apologetically, after concluding her testimony. “I’m not trying to ruin this guy’s life.”
Most of the hearings that day resulted in fines: $900 for the cabby who drove Mr. Gelstein (he did not show up for his hearing and was found guilty in absentia), and $200 for Mr. Singh. But even with the new system, almost half of the complainants do not testify, and the complaints are dismissed.
That happened to Mr. Nuamah, who could not afford a lawyer but whose passenger, who had opted for a phone hearing, failed to answer his phone. Mr. Nuamah’s scheduled hearing time passed, and he received good news: the complaint against him was dismissed.