The ambulance arrived at the scene minutes after the cabs collided, one yellow taxi T-boned into another in a busy Manhattan intersection. Shattered glass covered the street as a woman, still in the back seat of one the cabs, clutched her neck in pain.
A cabby paced beside his wrecked car, an earpiece dangling from the side of his head. An emergency worker, Ralph Ortiz, asked him what had happened.
“I was on the phone,” the driver told Mr. Ortiz, who several months later said he was still stunned by the response. “I didn’t see the light turn red.”
New York City cabbies have been banned from using cellphones for a decade — even the hands-free type, putting the city a step ahead of state law. But the stringent rules remain almost entirely unenforced, even amid research that shows drivers who talk on cellphones are four times as likely to cause a crash.
And as the city struggles to find more effective ways to confront the problem — call it an epidemic of gab — much of the burden to report cellphone abuse falls on passengers, who can feel powerless or intimidated.
The authorities issued just 232 summonses for cellphone use in yellow cabs during the first six months of this year, or one ticket for every 517,241 cab rides during that period, based on the city’s estimated ridership.
For the same period in 2008, 411 summonses were issued, or about one for every 291,971 rides.
The head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the city agency that regulates the industry, acknowledged that combating phone use by drivers remains “a constant battle.” But the commissioner, Matthew W. Daus, said the problem is not as bad as it used to be, citing a decline in summonses and consumer complaints from 2008 and this year.
Yet for many New Yorkers, the sight of a cabby using a cellphone while driving has become an indelible part of the urban milieu — the vehicular equivalent of jaywalking.
A reporter set out on a recent Saturday for an unscientific survey: On 20 taxi rides, taken at various times across Manhattan, more than a third of the drivers talked on the phone. (A few checked text messages as well.) Asked politely to cease their conversations, nearly all immediately complied, and one offered an emphatic apology.
One driver, however, was less contrite. After picking up a passenger in Greenwich Village, the driver chatted several minutes on a hands-free device before being asked to stop talking. Instead, he stopped the car. “I can’t take you,” the driver said as he pulled to the side of the road, pointing at the dashboard and mumbling about an engine stall.
New York’s rules about phone use in taxis, passed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission in 1999 over objections from the wireless industry, are among the strictest in the country. While similar restrictions exist in Boston and Chicago, hands-free devices in taxis are permitted in Los Angeles and Washington. In Denver and Miami, all drivers — cabbies included — can use cellphones.
Drivers in New York City who are convicted of violating the rule must pay a $200 fine. Yet caught-while-chatting cabbies have remained a rarity since the beginning of the decade, when cellphones first flourished. Fewer than 800 summonses were issued to yellow and livery cabs in 2007; at most, 2,285 citations were issued in 2004.
The city began a sting operation in 2008, called “Operation Secret Rider,” where inspectors posed as passengers to check on cabbies’ conduct. Mr. Daus called the program an effective deterrent, but much of the enforcement still ends up being left to riders. “Any passenger can be our eyes and ears,” Mr. Daus said, adding that the city has made it easier for passengers to call in complaints.
Research shows that the hands-free devices commonly used by cabbies, like Bluetooth headsets and lavalier microphones, are considered by researchers to be just as dangerous.
“They’re so absorbed in their phone call — even if they have the earplug in their ear,” said Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University . who often takes cabs with her son and daughter, ages 9 and 6. “It’s not only my own safety, it’s my children’s safety.”
For riders like Ms. Way, confronting a driver can be a fearsome prospect. Her heart often starts to race after stepping into a taxi and finding the cabby on the phone. Most drivers respond amicably when she requests they hang up, but about one in five do not take it as well. “One guy told me I was being mean,” she said. “Another guy told me I was acting like a drill sergeant.”
This delicate interchange — a polite admonishment, followed by an uncertain response — has become a near-daily ritual for Ms. Way, 45. “It’s a little stressful for me to say something; I’m not a very aggressive person,” she said. “You’re asking someone to do something that creates a negative atmosphere.”
Cabbies say that they do not mind hanging up if a passenger is bothered, unless there’s an emergency. Gino Augustino, a single parent from Brooklyn who has been driving cabs for five years, said he uses his phone only to talk with his son and two daughters. “I leave them at home with my mother, and when they call, I’ll pull over,” Mr. Augustino, 47, said, pointing to his headset. “You never know with kids. That’s why I have the phone, for them.”
Taxi drivers say their cellphones can be a lifeline in emergencies and a relief from the isolation of 12 hours on the streets. And they say that as professional drivers, they are less likely to be distracted.
“Private motorists don’t accumulate the kind of knowledge and experience that a professional yellow cab driver does,,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which says it represents 11,000 of the city’s cabbies.
It is difficult to gauge whether the use of phones in cabs has resulted in a riskier experience for taxi passengers. The Taxi and Limousine Commission does not keep track of any taxicab accidents, let alone those caused by the use of a cellphone.
The State Department of Motor Vehicles logs all accidents in the city, but while cellphone use is cited as a factor for some accidents, the numbers are unreliable because the reports are not handled uniformly.
This being New York, the most effective means of cutting off a conversation may be found not in the offices of city regulators, but in the customer’s wallet.
“When I talk all the time, the passengers get angry,” said Mohammad Forazi, 42, of the Bronx. “They don’t give tips.”
Matt Richtel contributed reporting.