Female Cab Drivers Set Up Their Own Safety Networks

Dominican-born taxi drivers Belkis Polanco (left) and Hilaria Peña. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Every morning at 6:00, Belkis Polanco leaves her Bronx home, gets in her cab – a Toyota – and says a prayer to every saint in the book to help her have a financially productive workday (with “muchos chelitos,” or “lots of dough”) and to keep her from harm.

The Dominican mother, who is the head of her household, admits that even though the Big Apple has become increasingly safer in recent years, female drivers continue to be extremely vulnerable, which has led them to organize to protect each other.

“One is exposed to all kinds of circumstances every day, because anyone who is in the streets is at risk. There are many people loose out there who are up to no good, and they want to take advantage when they see that you are a woman,” said Polanco. She and a number of fellow female drivers working in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx have devised plans that are now part of their routine and crucial to reducing risks.

“We protect each other directly, not just through the dispatch. So, if someone sees something weird or suspicious, we call each other or send texts: ‘There was a mugging there,’ ‘this area is sketchy,’ ‘don’t go into that area,’ ‘keep your eyes open out there,’” said Belkis, adding that these protective measures go beyond avoiding criminals.

“We help each other with everything we can. We help each other for simpler things, such as when one of us says: ‘Hey, my door is jammed,’ ‘hey, I need a booster.’ We go to each other’s rescue,” said the divorced mom. “We even rescue each other from TLC (the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which controls the industry) when they are around because they pressure us a lot. They are even scarier because they give you a really expensive ticket – $250 and up – for any little thing. So we come together and fight to prevent anything bad from happening to us.”

Dominican-born Hilaria Peña, who quit her job as a professional hairstylist five years ago to earn a living behind the wheel, points out that new technology has been vital to their safety plans.

“Now, there is a camera on the passenger, a camera in front and cameras for everyone. We also have a 911 app, which the police, ambulances and firefighters have as well. They track us down, and that makes us feel more protected than before; but God comes first,” said the cab driver, insisting that the direct connection among her coworkers is their main tool for protection.

“We are all able to contact each other. I have sometimes had people in my car with whom I don’t feel safe, and I always have someone to call and tell them: ‘Hey, stay on the line.’ We don’t talk or anything, but I send her the information about where I am and where I am heading, and that way she knows I do not feel safe and she can track me down until I reach the place and let her know that I am okay,” added the taxi driver, sitting in her Camry while her coworker Belkis shares one of the stories [of what] she went through.

“I mostly work with vouchers, but one afternoon I felt sorry for a guy with a child who told me: ‘Take me to the Bronx,’ and he had me driving around for about two hours and then pretended that he was looking for money in his bag and then ran away. I did not offer resistance, but I had to let him go because it is better to lose that money than lose your life,” she said, adding that their job experiences are like getting a master’s degree in psychology.

“At this point, with all the experience you have, you sort of know which passengers you can take just by looking at their face. That served me well one night I was in the Bronx and saw three guys in a deserted area. Even though the call came from the dispatch, when I saw the place, I called a colleague to be on the lookout for me. I stopped but then left, because my sixth sense told me that something was not right. I said: ‘I’m out of here,’ and left them standing there,” said the driver, laughing and adding that she knows she dodged a proverbial bullet.

According to TLC, there are 176,791 registered taxi drivers currently active in New York, of which only 8,409 – 4.7 percent – are women, many of them Hispanic and heads of household.

María Jiménez, who has made her living driving taxis for 15 years, is one of them. She agrees that the informal network that many of the women in her industry have created has scared away many criminals.

“We have heard stories of female taxi drivers who have been raped, may God protect us! They used to mug and injure us on a daily basis, but that has not happened in a long time thanks to GPS, cameras and all those things. Now you just call the dispatcher or let a fellow female driver know, and they track us down. I think that [criminals] are scared now, although the most common thing they still do is leave without paying for the ride,” said Jiménez, also Dominican.

Cira Ángeles, spokeswoman for New York’s Livery Base Owners Association, pointed out that, while women continue to have minimal representation among taxi drivers, they have set an example by earning their space and keeping each other safe.

“It used to be that lack of safety was one of the most worrying points, but it has gotten better with the arrival of cameras and technological devices. That does not mean that our streets are 100 percent safe, but the scenario has indeed changed,” said the activist, adding that it is also worth noting that communities are increasingly learning to respect women behind the wheel.

“The cases we continue to see are attacks against the taxi drivers’ property, and cell phone and cash theft. Also, at night, there are instances in which people get off without paying because, when they see a woman, they assume that she is more vulnerable than a man and insult their dignity,” said Ángeles, stressing the fact that communication is a protective cloak against danger.

“Communication has been crucial in halting the proliferation of multiple assaults in an industry where women are seen as easy targets. Having these organized networks is of utmost importance to avoid crimes, including the networks they have created among themselves on WhatsApp,” said the association’s spokeswoman.

She added that even though the organization offers safety seminars to help the female drivers protect themselves better, the police should be more active. “Education is key – female taxi drivers are now more alert – but the authorities can do more. There is always more to do.”

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