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City should track all taxis by GPS, inspector general says

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Inspector General Joe Ferguson recommended Thursday that Chicago mandate an “integrated’’ GPS system that tracks the movement of its 6,726 licensed taxicabs to safeguard cabdrivers and passengers.

Cabdrivers, beware. City Hall may someday be watching your every on-duty move while driving the streets of Chicago.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson recommended Thursday that Chicago mandate an "integrated'' GPS system that tracks the movement of its 6,726 licensed taxicabs to safeguard cabdrivers and passengers, locate lost property and identify cabs involved in hit-and-run accidents.

Nearly five months after a hit-and-run accident involving a cab killed a 32-year-old Bucktown grad student, Ferguson argued that the benefits of installing an integrated GPS system would far outweigh the cost.

After studying similar set-ups in New York City and Boston, Ferguson pegged the cost of a unified system at less than $2 million to Chicago taxpayers and $833-a-year to the owners and operators of Chicago taxicabs. That's just one percent of the $85,000 in gross annual revenues earned by each Chicago taxicab.

"The IGO is pleased that its analysis has revealed a readily available, low-cost option that would improve public safety and customer service in an essential city program," Ferguson said in a written statement.

Chicago cabbies have petitioned the City Council for their first fare increase in five years, setting the stage for the system upgrade, Ferguson wrote.

"As part of the next fare increase, the city should consider mandating that taxicabs implement a GPS system that tracks the movement of on-duty taxicabs," the report states.

GPS has been mandatory in all Chicago taxicabs since 2007. But there is no requirement that the tracking devices be connected to a single system, nor is GPS data collected, tracked or analyzed.

The absence of such a system made it impossible for Chicago Police to find the cabdriver involved in the May 14 hit-and-run accident that killed Dan Firkins, an MBA student at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

Police say Firkins was trying to hail a cab to class on a Friday afternoon outside his home in the 1600 block of North Honore when he got into an argument with the driver of a white taxi with a blue stripe.

As he leaned through the window to talk to the driver, the cab sped away, dragging Firkins down the street. Tire marks on the victim's legs and a pair of skull fractures suggest that the driver ran over Firkins.

Despite an emotional appeal from Firkins' father, the cabbie never turned himself in.

Ferguson noted that Chicago taxicabs were the "offending vehicle" in 88 hit-and-run accidents involving pedestrians in 2008 and 2009 and 46 hit-and-runs involving bicycle riders. Another 1,350 hit-and-run Chicago accidents involved taxicabs, but it was not known whether the cab was the "offending vehicle," the inspector general wrote.

Norma Reyes, commissioner of the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, could not be reached for comment.

In a written response attached to the inspector general's report, Reyes opposed the idea of mandating an integrated GPS system on grounds the industry has made a "considerable investment" in electronic dispatch equipment and credit card processing.

Reyes said she "does not believe it is in the best interest of the industry to mandate a technology that duplicates or is incompatible with existing technology," Reyes said.

The commissioner further argued that "storage capacity on a dedicated server" would be needed to allow the city to accumulate detailed trip information. Programming would also be needed to collect the information from "various existing systems and make the data usable," she said.

Reyes noted that her department "was unsuccessful in securing funding for these two items" for the last three years.

In New York, cabdrivers strongly opposed the unified GPS system on grounds that it invaded their privacy. Some drivers felt so strongly about the issue, they went on strike, then sued the city before a federal judge upheld the system.

Ferguson argued that similar privacy concerns can be alleviated in Chicago by "ensuring that data is only collected when taxicabs are on duty."