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Hell on wheels: Taxi TV drives New York's cabbies insane

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Gil Avineri, a New York City cab driver, says taxi TVs threaten his "right to sanity" at work. (Photo by Sunny Shokrae for CNS)

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Gil Avineri, a New York City cab driver, says taxi TVs threaten his "right to sanity" at work. (Photo by Sunny Shokrae for CNS)

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New York City cab drivers are not entertained by taxi TVs. (Photo by Sunny Shokrae for CNS)

Some people envision Hell as fire and brimstone. Others buy into the existential notion that hell is other people. New York City cabdrivers have recently come upon their own definition of purgatory: Being trapped in a small, enclosed space and forced to listen to Kelly Ripa repeat to Regis Philbin: “Taxis are so much more fun than they used to be, aren’t they, Reg?!” approximately 40 times in a 12-hour period.

“It feels like a violation of my right to sanity in my workspace,” says Gil Avineri, 27, a driver from Queens.

Since 2007, when the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission first mandated that screens be installed in the backs of its 13,000 cabs—along with credit card machines and GPS tracking devices—drivers have struggled to adjust to a host of irritating problems. They have no way of controlling the TVs from the front seat—they can’t turn them on or off, up or down. All power lies in passengers’ hands. So they end up hearing the same roughly 15-minute loop of commercials, entertainment clips and news clips, like a scratched record, dozens of times per shift. Even Conan O’Brien stops being funny the 10th time you’ve heard him tell the same joke.

“Sometimes when I’m in bed, I hear the TV in my sleep,” said Paramjit Singh, a driver from Queens.

Most of the TVs feature programming from ABC and NBC, altering it slightly from day to day or week to week—though some spots (like Regis and Kelly’s) remain the same for months. Newscasts are updated a few times a day.

Then there’s the constant, repetitive stream of ads: the MasterCard Priceless commercial with Mr. Bill, the tiny gummy man, who’s always down on his luck—and yelling a high-pitched “Oh Nooooooo” over and over again. Or an annoyingly chipper ad for Panama. (“That one is too much,” says Claudio Caba, a driver from the Bronx, shaking his head. Hastening to add: “There’s nothing wrong with Panama.”)

Indeed, from drunk passengers who pound the TVs in frustration when they can’t figure out how to turn them off (one driver once had a woman ask him for a hammer) to smaller tips from passengers who get carsick from the moving images, drivers are not entertained by their in-cab entertainment.

Some say they’ve learned to tune out the noise, and most point out that, relative to salary issues, the TVs fall lower on their list of complaints. Still, some say the TVs have begun to affect their mental health.

“It’s like when you go home and your wife gives you bull over and over again,” says George A., who’s been driving a cab since the 1960s. (He preferred not to give his last name for fear that his wife would give him bull over and over again for it.)

Why were the TVs installed in the first place? To “enhance customer service,” says Matthew Daus, the TLC’s commissioner, at a time when fares were going up. The revenue is split among the networks, cab owners and “taxi technology” vendors—namely VeriFone Transportation Systems, which broadcasts the local ABC affiliate, and Creative Mobile Technology Inc., which has an alliance with Clear Channel and NBC Universal.

While the classic archetype of the old New York cabbie—eager to interact with passengers, to listen to their problems and respond with insightful quips—may have gone the way of subway tokens, drivers who still enjoy engaging complain that the TVs have simply dehumanized the cab experience.

Riding in a taxi “is one of the few times when New Yorkers can have an intimate moment to themselves, or with someone they’ll never see again,” says Avineri. “The anonymity of the experience allows people to share things that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

Yet over the past 18 months, the TVs have created a barrier more impenetrable than the plexiglass separating him from his passengers, he says. Customers get sucked in to the banal programming and are less likely to want to chat.

Chip Stern, who’s been driving a taxi on and off since 1979—and who, last year, published an Op-Ed about his hatred for the TVs in The Daily News, with the headline “Get this obnoxious TV out of my cab”—says the TVs create a dangerous distraction on the road.

He’s particularly incensed by what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the city: Drivers aren’t allowed to talk on cell phones while driving, yet there’s the constant noise of the TVs. Unwilling to accept this, he’s begun asking passengers—nicely, of course—to turn them off as soon as they get in his cab. “99 percent are happy to do it,” he says.

The only passengers who seem to genuinely enjoy the TVs, drivers say, are tourists and kids. The latter, perhaps too much. “Kids put on too much volume,” says Singh, from Queens. As a result, he’s begun to avoid picking up passengers with children in tow, which, incidentally, is also against the rules.

Yet if kids can adjust the dials too easily, other passengers have a tough time figuring out how to turn the TVs off, or down. Many drivers report having to pull over to the side of the road, get out of the cab, and adjust the TVs for passengers. Others complain of TVs that, thanks to broken controls, can’t be turned off. They say such malfunctions have caused them to lose customers.

“I just breathe deep, look out the window, and do what I have to do,” says Avineri when he finds himself in these and similarly aggravating situations.

Many drivers compare the TVs to an earlier Taxi and Limousine Commission effort, its “Talking Taxis” campaign: A few years ago, every time a passenger entered or exited a cab, the voice of Joan Rivers, Sesame Street’s Elmo, former Yankee Paul O’Neill or someone else would remind the passenger to buckle up, ask for a receipt and remember personal belongings. That campaign, too, annoyed drivers—though it paled in comparison to the TVs.

Still, many drivers take solace in the notion that, like the recordings, the TVs won’t last forever; that their hell isn’t everlasting.

“In the city, nothing is here to stay,” said Bouba Ba, a driver for more than a decade. “Everything is for a moment.”

If only the same were true of Kelly Ripa.

E-mail: daf2132@columbia.edu