Taxi Drivers Demand Regulations to Prevent Driver Suicides

Taxi drivers like Víctor Salazar fear that more drivers may attempt to take their own lives if no solution is found to the crisis. (Photo via El Diario)

The amount of debt and the economic crisis taxi drivers are enduring in the Big Apple as a result of the advent of car service apps such as Uber and Lyft have led four taxi drivers – two of them Hispanic – to take their own lives in the last four months, according to their relatives.

On Wednesday, seeking to draw attention to the hardship they are facing, representatives of this line of work stood in front of City Hall with four coffins representing their deceased co-workers to warn New York City authorities that there will be further deaths, bankruptcies and poverty if they do not take immediate action to regulate the industry.

“We are in mourning because of these deaths, and it hurts to see that the city has abandoned thousands of men and women who have become invisible and who, in trying to make a living driving a cab, are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Desai pointed out that many taxi cab owners have debts of between $6,000 and $9,000 per month which are already impossible to meet due to unfair “competition.”

“No driver is making money. The city needs to act now, because they are driving us to poverty and even to homelessness. There needs to be fair and equal regulation for all,” he said.

Nicolae Hent, a friend of Douglas Schifter’s – the taxi driver who killed himself last month in front of City Hall overwhelmed by debt and the collapse of his work prospects – said that, if political leaders fail to make rides hired through apps abide by the same rules as taxi cabs, they will be “ending the lives” of more drivers, as was the case of Nicanor Ochisor, Danilo Corporán-Castillo and Alfredo Pérez.

“For over 30 years I have given my money to the city by paying for my car and my medallion, which is now worth nothing, and I feel like I have been robbed. They need to do something,” said the driver, visibly angry.

(…) Drivers like Víctor Salazar – who has owned a yellow cab since 1994 – openly admit that they are in the depths of “despair.”

“I or any of my co-workers could be the fifth one because the truth is that I feel suffocated and depressed. I think that our hope is dying and, while I drive, locked inside that car, I sometimes get very sad and anxious at seeing how we are sinking,” said Salazar, a Hispanic immigrant. “That is why I ask the mayor to do the right thing and the governor to stop fooling around and stop benefiting only large corporations while, as in my case, I am not only not earning the same as I used to but also have a $300,000 debt that I must keep on paying because I have no choice.”

“Stop Uber”

During the demonstration, taxi drivers demanded that the city set limits on the number of e-hail cars allowed to circulate on the streets, in order to restrict apps such as Uber, which some estimate have 140,000 cars active in New York City. They also requested rate regulation across the industry and that costs imposed on drivers be capped, including vehicle financing and commission taxes.

Rubén Díaz Sr., chair of the City Council’s For-Hire Vehicles Committee, said that he did not attend the demonstration “out of respect for the families” of the four taxi drivers who took their lives. However, he expressed his support for their claims and asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to evaluate the way the TLC commissioner is handling this issue.

“The mayor is the mayor, but when there is a commissioner, she reports to the mayor and, if that person is not doing her job, then the mayor is not doing his job,” said the council member, who introduced a bill to regulate Uber and promote fair competition among all drivers, with limits and obligations.

“When we see people taking their own lives, overwhelmed by debt, and have one of them do it in front of City Hall, it means that things are seriously bad and you cannot ignore that. There will continue to be deaths until Uber is regulated,” said the Bronx political leader, who took the opportunity to call on taxi drivers: “I understand the desperation you are feeling when you are paying $1 million for a medallion whose value has dropped to $200,000 and you are forced to keep paying that debt, but I ask you not to take action against your own lives.”

Austin Finan, spokesman for the de Blasio administration, said that the city deeply laments the deaths of the drivers and that they continue to be committed to finding solutions.

“These are painful stories, and we extend our thoughts and prayers to those who have been affected by these tragic actions,” said the official. “We have worked closely with the TLC and the City Council to reduce regulations for drivers and find a balance between the need to protect customers and keep city streets safe, and these efforts will continue as we seek to reduce the stress drivers are experiencing.”

At the end of the protest, as he placed a flower on one of the coffins, one of the taxi drivers said: “I hope they are the last ones.”

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