Few occupations comprise a more varied sample of the human population than taxi driving. The range of individual backgrounds in the drivers’ seats of America’s cabs is as diverse as America itself. Of the many factors that attract people of all stripes to this intriguing but notorious profession, one matters above all: the opportunity to make a living, and a good one.
How Cab Drivers Make a Living
In nearly all cases, cab drivers are independent contractors. Some own their own cabs, but the majority of drivers lease from a cab company. Cabs are usually leased on a daily or weekly basis. In a typical arrangement, the lease includes the taxi, insurance, maintenance and communications equipment. In most cities, the lease also includes dispatch services. Cab companies take orders over the phone from customers, and make these orders available to drivers. (Manhatten, where cabs are simply hailed on the street, is a famous exception.) Drivers are usually expected to provide their own fuel, and are responsible for keeping their cabs clean.
Who’s Cut Out for It
Certainly not everyone. Cab driving can be dangerous work, though not as dangerous as some-mostly those who have never done it-make it out to be. It is not by any means a job for the faint of heart. Occupational hazards include robbery and assault, to say nothing of the inherent risks of operating a motor vehicle in traffic. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the rewarding moments in cab driving can be truly spectacular, and an adventurous, people-savvy person can make the job pay off in many ways.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Be old enough. Most cab companies require that drivers be at least 21; many require they be 25. These requirements are imposed by the companies’ insurers.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Have a clean driving record. It doesn’t need to be spotless, but most companies don’t want to see more than two moving violations in the last three years. Some are stricter. Serious violations in the past five years, such as DUI, will generally keep you from driving a cab.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Have several years’ experience driving a motor vehicle. Companies usually like to see at least three.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Be legally eligible to work in the United States. A Social Security card and driver’s license is usually enough to establish this.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Pass a background check/drug test. Not all companies require either of these-surprisingly, many don’t-but both practices are becoming increasingly common.
Most cab companies do not require drivers to have prior taxi experience. New drivers are often required to participate in a one-day classroom orientation, and sometimes required to spend a few hours riding along with an experienced driver.
Skills You’ll Need
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Knowledge of your city. The better you know your way around, the safer you will be and the greater your earning potential. Most American cities are laid out in a grid, with most streets representing a particular “hundred block.” It’s a very good idea to learn as many of these as you can, because being able to quickly find addresses leads to better earnings.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Defensive driving. Most everybody has heard the term “defensive driving” ad nauseam, but its practice is of heightened importance to those who drive professionally. Contrary to lore, cab drivers are generally among the safest (though seldom the slowest) on the road. Cab companies face huge liabilities, pay big insurance premiums and take safety very seriously. Traffic violations and accidents often cost drivers their jobs.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Customer service. Unfortunately, this is an area where many drivers tend to be deficient. Cab driving is stressful, and many drivers, unfortunately, do not enter the profession at an ideal level of social adjustment. But drivers who have a good rapport with customers earn much more in tips, and have more fun.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ “Street smarts.” A crucial element of driver safety and profitability is the ability to read people and make decisions accordingly. Some fares should be asked to pay “up front,” for example. Some shouldn’t be taken at all. The vast majority of people who ride in cabs are not dangerous, but being able to spot the critical minority can prevent bad things from happening.
Items You’ll Need
Ã¢Â?Â¢ A current local map book. This is the most important item in a cab driver’s toolkit, and it’s critical that the map be up-to-date. In most cities, new streets and modifications to existing ones appear each year. Expensive time can be lost trying to find an address without the appropriate map. Cab companies often sell maps to drivers at or near cost, but bookstores usually carry them too. Expect to spend somewhere between ten and twenty dollars.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ A phone book. These have become less important in the information age, but they’re still indispensable to cab drivers. Sometimes a fare will only know the name of a business; not its location. Now that cab companies are distributing calls via mobile data terminals (which display the full address of the calls), drivers rely less on phone books. Still, every driver should have one.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ A cell phone. Most cab drivers carry one, and all probably should. But the cab-driving community contains-and probably always will-a countercultural element that rejects high-tech personal expenditures such as mobile phones. They’re still considered “optional equipment,” but the advantages they offer drivers are immense, both in terms of convenience and safety.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ A large, durable flashlight. (For drivers who work after dark.) A four or five “D” cell Mag-Light is perfect. Finding addresses can be difficult in the dark, as can finding items in a dark cab with a broken dome light. (Something every driver will encounter on a regular basis.) The big, nightstick-like flashlights offer other advantages too. (Such as extended battery life.)
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Optional: self-defense items. Many drivers carry a firearm; others carry pepper-spray; some even carry high-tech devices like Tasers. The decision to carry any kind of self-defense weapon is deeply personal, and should always be carefully considered with regard to risk and benefit. But many, if not most drivers choose to carry some form of personal-protection device.
Your First Time Out
Every driver vividly remembers his/her first outing in a cab. For many first-timers, the first day or night on the job is the real opportunity to decide whether the profession is for them. Those who don’t stick with it usually give up within the first week. For many, the first time out is more fun-and sometimes more profitable-than expected. A few things to remember:
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Be mindful of your stress level. There is a nearly-unlimited randomness to the kinds of situations you might encounter, and not all of them will be pleasant. Beware the vicious cycle: a stressed-out driver is a poorer decision-maker than a relaxed one, and poor decisions lead to more stress.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Keep moving. Cab driving is self-employment. As such, it is tempting to take breaks and develop irregular work habits. Try to remember what every moment you spend without somebody in the back seat is costing you.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Stay curious. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t even sought out this job. But humans are creatures of habit. All too often, cab drivers end up working within a narrow range of their true capabilities, often concentrating on only one part of town, only taking certain types of calls and the like. One of the most rewarding aspects of the job is how truly different it is from one day to the next. Celebrate this; don’t fight it.
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Be health-conscious. For optimal health, full-time cab driving is a less-than-ideal physical activity. Many drivers have job-related medical problems such as back pain, muscular atrophy and obesity. Remember how much time you spend sitting down, and take every opportunity you can to get out of the cab. (e.g. knock on the door instead of honking your horn.)
Ã¢Â?Â¢ Be safe. Cab driving is dangerous enough without taking unnecessary risks. The impulse to pick up a sketchy fare can be strong, especially at times when you’re not making as much money as you’d like. The impulse to run a red light, when you’re running late can be strong, too. Be aware that the risks of habits such as these add up. It’s easy to risk both your job and your life in a cab, but with some discipline, most risks can be mitigated or avoided altogether.
Making it Pay
A common question for newcomers is “how much money will I make?” The answer, of course, depends on many factors. Among them are: the city you’re working in, the company you’re working for, the season, the weather and the economy. Many of these, of course, are not things you can control. Under the right conditions, a skilled driver can make between one and three hundred dollars per shift, and sometimes even more. Every driver will encounter days/nights when profit becomes impossible, however. Vehicle breakdowns and other unexpected problems can ruin your shift. Most drivers make a much better living than they would at the vast majority of entry-level jobs.
Most drivers will also tell you that there are many more rewards in the cab business than just money. A day or night spent in a taxi can be almost overwhelmingly rich in sensory stimulation. Drivers experience a wider range of sights, sounds and (for better or worse) smells than people in most occupations, and this can take some getting used to. But a cab driver’s perspective on society is extraordinary. It is truly a wide view, in sharp detail, of humanity. And by far one of the most interesting ways to make a buck.