Last Friday, November 7th, famed cycling filmmaker Lucas Brunelle was attacked and deliberately rammed by a Boston cabbie. The driver, Sam Chandler, fled the scene after repeatedly punching and attempting to run over Brunelle, but was arrested a short time later. While the Boston Globe charactered the altercation as “bizarre”, this kind of violence is disturbingly common among taxi drivers.
In a tragic and highly publicized incident in Midtown, New York City in August, 2013, a cabbie lost control of his vehicle, jumped the curb, and hit a young woman, completely severing her left leg off. What was less publicized was the fact that the cabbie crashed after intentionally ramming a bike messenger. This was just days after another Midtown cab jumped a curb after running a red light, seriously injuring several pedestrians.
Insanely, there’s actual debate as to whether cabbies should face criminal penalties for maiming or killing people cycling and on foot, and it’s not just in car-crazy United States. In July of 2013, Ichhapal Bhamra drove his cab into 20 year old bicyclist Tom Ridgway, killing him and dragging his body for over 90 yards. Despite this lethal action, Bhamra’s only punishment was a £35 fine.
One would think professional drivers whose livelihoods depend on a clean record would be among the safest motorists out there. The idea of a commercial truck driver deliberately running down a cyclist is almost unimaginable – or a mail carrier ramming into pedestrians, it’s simply beyond the pale.
Partially concealing a black eye, Brunelle speaks to press after a hearing.
So what makes cab drivers so reckless or aggressive that they’re routinely killing people walking and cycling? New York and Boston are obviously dense cities where cabs and bicyclists compete for space, but so too do truck drivers – yet biker vs. delivery truck altercations just don’t seem to be a thing.
You might argue that truckers receive a higher level of training than taxi drivers, but training can’t negate human behavior on the streets. Perhaps it has something to do with the modes themselves. Where most cyclists would give trucks a much wider berth, you’ll often see people on bikes dodging cabs and private motor vehicles with only inches to spare.
We know that the confines of the automobile degrade social empathy while increasing stress. Someone driving all day is usually fatigued, less alert, and more prone to road rage. Would these factors add up over time, effectively making cab drivers more likely than your average motorist to behave dangerously, going so far as to ram bicyclists intentionally?
Cab drivers also deal with the additional weight of being highly targeted for assault while on the job, as well as having to work long hours for minimal pay. The average salary of a cabbie is barely over $22,000 a year.
Appreciating these hazards doesn’t excuse hitting somebody with a 2,000 lb. lethal weapon. Reading about the recent altercation involving Lucas Brunelle reminded me of an abruptly violent confrontation I witnessed during a bike move in the summer of 2012.
About 20 of us had packed up the personal belongings of another bike filmmaker, Kara Minnehan and were pedaling our way across Northeast Portland, Oregon. While taking up just one of two West-bound lanes over the Broadway bridge, a Radio Cab driver pulled up along next to us matching our speed, then aggressively and loudly accelerated away from us. At no point were we obstructing the taxi whatsoever.
We continued riding up through the Pearl district, when just a few minutes later the exact same cabbie pulled up behind us, now honking to get out of his way. He floored the vehicle and sped around the group, then slammed on the brakes directly in front of us, swung his door open, and lunged out of the car.
At this point, all of us had stopped. We watched, fairly stunned, as the cab driver rushed towards us, wildly swinging his fists and shoving several riders.
He looked to be in his mid-sixties, maybe 6′ 0″ or so, and was screaming incoherently. Some of the larger individuals in our group surrounded him, informed the man he was about to face blows in return if he didn’t retreat fast. The cabbie seemed to suddenly realize the numbers weren’t in his favor. He then sprinted back to his vehicle, engine still running in the middle of the road and peeled out. A few of us tried following him for a few blocks, but with our bikes loaded down with boxes and furniture, there wasn’t much we could do but watch the raging cabbie speed away.
We hadn’t provoked this man in any way, other than by legally riding our bikes. If that’s all it takes to drive a cabbie to commit assault, there’s definitely something to the profession that invokes this inexcusable behavior. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time I saw a taxi driver flip out and threaten people on their bikes, but it was definitely the most dramatic.
As people in cities continue transitioning away from private motor vehicle ownership, it’s likely the number of cycles and taxis will both increase. Being alert and aware goes without saying when you’re biking urban roadways. Of all the drivers out there that can do you harm, keep an eye out for cabbies most of all.
See y’all in the streets.
Thumbnail: a pedicab rider moments before being rammed by a taxi van driver.