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Hail and hardy: More concern for the health of the cars than the drivers in the taxi biz

Would you board an airplane if you knew that the pilot had not completely recovered from a recent stroke?

WOULD YOU board an airplane if you knew that the pilot had not completely recovered from a recent stroke?

Would you eat at a restaurant if you knew that the chef still had the flu?

Of course not. Yet people ride in taxicabs every day with drivers who had no choice but to return to work no matter how sick or with what ailment.

Currently, cabdrivers have no health benefits or disability coverage for injuries incurred on the job. While owners of taxi medallions are required to insure that investment, they do not have to offer insurance for the drivers. The cabs and the medallions are protected from accidents and vandalism, but the driver is not protected at all.

This has created a dangerous situation for Philadelphia's cabdrivers, their passengers and for the hospitality industry as a whole. The Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), which regulates taxicabs, conducted a study that helps to clarify the problem. It shows that the average cabdriver earns less than $5 per hour. These poverty wages force drivers to continue working while ill or injured. It is almost impossible for drivers to take time off after an injury or illness and continue to pay their rent and put food on the table. A sick or injured driver places himself and his passengers at risk, not to mention other cars on the road.

In addition, there is no death benefit offered to drivers. Families of those who have been killed, in addition to dealing with the emotional devastation of losing a loved one, are faced with financial ruin after the loss of a breadwinner's income. Hafiz Sarfaraz, a driver who was killed this year, leaves behind a wife and small daughter who are struggling to survive.

How serious is this problem? Consider: According to a 2010 report released by the U.S. Department of Labor, taxi drivers are listed as one of the country's 10 most dangerous occupations. Philadelphians know this danger all too well - we lost two taxi drivers last year alone. The parking authority recently addressed the danger that drivers face every day when it approved regulations to protect cabbies from violent crimes: cameras in cabs, panic buttons linked directly to the police department and trouble lights installed on the back of all cabs. These actions, while timely and laudable, still do not provide the help that drivers need when they are injured, assaulted or murdered on the job.

Other cities have created cost-effective solutions to these problems. Chicago, for example, deducts $35 from the weekly taxi rental to fund workers compensation. San Francisco and Las Vegas require all cab owners to contribute to workers' compensation. New York City has long required taxi owners to provide protection for drivers. In fact, during the last meter-rate increase, New York's taxi regulators created a Health and Disability Fund for the city's 40,000 taxi drivers. To fund this plan, 6 cents is taken from each metered fare, creating a $12 million account each year that provides health, disability, vision, dental and other benefits. Philadelphia taxi riders would likely be willing to pay 6 cents to ensure a trip with a healthy operator.

With the upcoming sale of wheelchair-accessible taxi medallions, the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Pennsylvania lawmakers are in a unique position to follow the best practices of other cities in protecting cabdrivers, their riders and other drivers on Philadelphia's roads. Currently, taxi medallions in Philadelphia are worth $500,000. The upcoming sale of 150 taxi medallions should raise $75 million. Although it is not public knowledge exactly where this money goes, it is a safe bet that the public would want some of it to ensure their own safety.

If the PPA can order medallion owners to protect their commercial investments, there is no reason why the same cannot be done to protect their drivers.