03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Denying Cab Drivers a Cell Phone Puts Them in Danger (and Makes You Late)

It's a basic fact of life in New York that your taxi driver will probably be on the phone.

That may soon change. Last week, the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) proposed new rules that will prohibit the city's 46,000 cab drivers from wearing hands-free devices while behind the wheel. It also forbids drivers from having iPods and cameras in their cabs. The "three strike" system consists of escalating fines and penalties that culminate in the revocation of the driver's hack license.

To many regular New Yorkers, this may seem like a step in the right direction. To cabbies, however, it is downright draconian, yet another in a long list of rules from a TLC that wants to appease the public at the expense of drivers' safety.

According to the Department of Labor, driving a taxi is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. When taxi drivers find themselves alone in their cabs -- as they often do -- with psychopaths, scam artists, violence-prone individuals, or even just garden-variety drunken idiots, that little hands-free device can be a lifeline. Whether it's a fellow cabbie or 911 on speed-dial, it makes the driver less alone and, therefore, less vulnerable. If something weird, scary, or dangerous happens, then at least someone, somewhere, knows about it.

If (okay, when) your cabbie is on the phone, chances are he's talking to four or five other cab drivers scattered around the city. They are talking about their shifts, alerting each other to what's happening on the streets, where it's busy, where it's dead, where there's traffic, or where a crane just collapsed. This helps them to do a better job navigating all the pitfalls and tie-ups in such a heavily congested city.

At times, to be sure, they're talking about you. What you look like, where you're going, and how you're behaving. This often serves as a form of protection, akin to having your photograph taken when you enter the cab. Last year, a female cab driver was assaulted by a passenger while she was on a conference call with four other women also on the job. Her comrades could hear the attack unfolding and were able to dial 911 and rush to the scene before the situation escalated into yet another cabbie fatality.

As for passenger safety, a recent study by Schaller Consulting shows that the city's licensed hacks in fact have 30 percent fewer accidents than non-professional drivers. This, according to Schaller, is due to cabbies' high level of experience on the road, with many logging up to 3,000 driving hours per year. It should also be noted that, according to the New York State DMV, less than 0.1 percent of all car accidents in the state in 2008 involved the use of hands-free cell phones.

The TLC has long held a double standard when it comes to its cab drivers: they are regulated as if they were city workers and treated (and paid) as second-class citizens. Their 12-hour shifts do not guarantee a livable wage, they receive no paid overtime, have no labor union, no health insurance, no pension plan, no sick days, no paid holidays -- the list goes on.

The city's MTA workers, on the other hand, have all the benefits cabbies are consistently denied, plus another little perk taxi drivers don't have: felony protection from assault. (By the way, this is the same MTA that, beginning Nov. 1, will receive a fifty-cent subsidy from every metered taxi ride in the city.)

With this type of protection in place, the argument for taking away cabbies' phones might make more sense. Unfortunately for drivers and passengers alike, the TLC has consistently turned a deaf ear to cabbies' health and safety needs, and this has only further eroded the quality of New York's taxi industry.

It's time for the TLC to rethink its approach to the drivers it regulates. Instead of moving forward with more punitive measures against cabbies, perhaps Commissioner Matthew Daus should consider improving the quality of their working conditions, starting with increased safety measures.

Yes, cell phone use needs to be curbed, but the TLC's proposal goes way too far. Revoking the licenses of cabbies who are caught with Bluetooths, iPods, or cameras will only help to install less experienced drivers behind the wheel, thus increasing the rate of taxi accidents.

And as long as New York State law permits motorists to use hands-free devices, it is absurd that professional drivers -- the very people who need their phones to aid in their jobs and ensure their own safety -- should be denied the same rights.