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A hard lesson learned in the fast lane

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Driving for a living in San Francisco is risky business, and it’s no easy task navigating the streets without cutting a few corners. (Courtesy photo)

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Well, they finally got me. After a solid year of driving a cab and, in the process, committing more than a few minor traffic infractions — as safely and skillfully as possible, I might add — I got a red light camera ticket. The fine: $490.

In previous columns, I’ve written about a proclivity to hightail it while transporting fares. In return, I’ve received multiple warnings from readers, usually fellow cab drivers, to “slow the fuck down.”

While I was obviously joking when I wrote that I drive fast to save my passengers money — in fact, people tell me all the time they appreciate my non-reckless driving, unlike “most cab drivers” — we all do illicit maneuvers when driving for hire.

For example, U-turns at Caltrain.

It never fails. Nine times out of 10, passengers returning to The City from the Peninsula are going in the opposite direction of the cabstand on Townsend.

For a while, cops were giving out tickets. In response, most of us drove past 4th Street and turned around at Lusk (some waiting to start the meter until we were heading in the right direction to not upset passengers who expect us to make the illegal U-turn). Others just took Berry to 7th. These days, without enforcement, the untenable no U-turn sign is being disrupted once again.

Blowing through lights is another common occurrence.

When I first started driving a cab, I had passengers complain that I stopped at yellow lights. “That’s why I take cabs!” they’d exclaim. So I got hip. And that’s what got me busted.

I was headed north on South Van Ness about 2 a.m. I wasn’t even in a hurry, just trying to catch the timed lights. It’s easy to get through most, but 14th Street is the kicker. I thought, for once, I could make it. As I approached the yellow, I hit the gas. Unfortunately, the light turned red with me in the intersection and the camera, which I honestly had no idea was there, blasted me with its klieg-like glare.

Back at the yard, I talked to Late Night Larry, my legal adviser. He said my prospects were grim. So, two weeks later, when Alex, the manager at National, called me into the office, I wasn’t surprised.

Now, I could bitch and moan about an unfair system that gives cab drivers tickets. I watch Muni buses plow through red lights all the time. Granted, the passengers on the bus, just like the passengers in the back of a taxi, probably appreciate this eagerness to get them where they’re going rapidly. I know I do. But what makes Muni operators, and not taxi drivers, immune to sanctions?

I could also point out that, in the two years I’ve been driving the streets of San Francisco, I’ve seen, literally, thousands of cars — mostly Ubers and Lyfts, natch — perform egregiously untoward traffic violations during the most congested times of the day, from illegal turns off Market to the ubiquitous blocking of the box downtown to double-parking on arterial thoroughfares like Fell, Oak, Franklin and Bush, not to mention every other street where Muni buses, Google buses, shuttles, pedestrians and bicyclists vie for dominance.

I could argue it’s extremely difficult to drive a cab without breaking a few vehicular ordinances. But there’s a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. Experienced cab drivers learn how to move through the streets deftly without causing accidents or creating gridlock. That’s what makes us professionals.

I could even whine about the injustice of a hard-working cab driver trying to make an honest buck, forced to shell out an enormous chunk of my earnings while all these other scofflaws get off scot-free.

But you know what?

I’ll take my punishment. Even though it means picking up as many extra shifts as I can this month to soften the blow to my already tenuous financial situation, I admit I’ve learned my lesson.

From now on, I’m going to take it easy. I’ll still drive with determination, of course — how else can you get people where they’re going in a crowded city like San Francisco? But instead of charging headlong into the urban jungle, I’ll negotiate the streets with a newfound respect for prowess over velocity.

And a watchful eye for red camera lights.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at piltdownlad@gmail.com and @piltdownlad.