Taxi driver might be forced to steer career in new direction

February 20, 2000

Wilbur Cox began driving a cab 12 years ago after he was laid off from his job as a machine operator at Koppers Co. Spending the day behind the wheel is not something he particularly enjoys, he said, but it's a living.

With the rising price of gasoline, though, making that living is getting tougher since Cox has to buy an average 20 gallons of gasoline a day for his Checker cab.

"It really makes a difference," he said. "In some cases it's 25 to 30 percent more than last year. -- That's a big cut."

In his business, there isn't a lot of room for cost-cutting -- no employees he can downsize, no synergies to be found between subsidiaries. He can't pass the extra expense to customers because his rates are set by the state Public Service Commission.

The only change he can make is to stop cruising the streets looking for fares and instead wait outside hotels or train stations for people in search of a ride.

"But then you run the risk of sitting for 25 to 30 minutes sometimes," he said.

Passengers seem to not know or not care that most drivers, like Cox, own their cabs and pay for gasoline out of their pockets. Tips are not on the rise. And Cox isn't about to hint for more.

"You don't want to antagonize them," he said. "You learn that it's like what Kenny Rogers said: You've got to know when to hold and when to fold."

Cox averages about $425 a week in fares, but pays about $75 a week to work under the Checker name, which is part of Yellow Transportation Inc.

Other costs, including insurance and maintenance, put his expenses at more than $100 a week -- not including gasoline, which adds $140 a week.

He said he's not sure how high gas prices would have to get before he hung up his keys -- he hasn't thought about it too much. At 59, he doesn't know what else he would do. And he likes the freedom that driving a cab gives him; his only relative in Maryland is a 93-year-old aunt and he wants to be able to tend to her if she becomes ill.

Taxi drivers and companies haven't asked the commission for an emergency rate increase, and Cox isn't sure they should.

"It's hard to say because you can price yourself right out of business," he said. "It's not that you don't need it, it's just if the public is willing to pay for it."

A rate increase might not help him that much.

"If they raise rates, Yellow would find a way to raise association dues," he said. "They would put it in one hand and take it out of the other."

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