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Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Customer's Trustworthiness

Diego Gambetta
Heather Hamill
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 264
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    Book Description:

    A taxi driver's life is dangerous work. Picking up a bad customer can leave the driver in a vulnerable position, and erring even once can prove fatal. To protect themselves, taxi drivers must quickly and accurately assess the trustworthiness of complete strangers. InStreetwise, Diego Gambetta and Heather Hamill take this predicament as a prototypical example of many trust decisions, where people must act on limited information and judge another person's trustworthiness based on signs that may or may not be honest indicators of that person's character or intent. Gambetta and Hamill analyze the behavior of cabbies in two cities where driving a taxi is especially perilous: New York City, where drivers have been the targets of frequent and violent robberies, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, a divided metropolis where drivers have been swept up in the region's sectarian violence.

    Based on in-depth ethnographic research,Streetwiselets drivers describe in their own words how they seek to determine the threat posed by each potential passenger. The drivers' decisions about whom to trust are treated in conjunction with the "sign-management" strategies of their prospective passengers-both genuine passengers who try to persuade drivers of their trustworthiness and the villains who mimic them. As the theory that guides this research suggests, drivers look for signs that correlate closely with trustworthiness but are difficult for an impostor to mimic. A smile, a business suit, or a skullcap alone do not reassure drivers, as any criminal could easily wear them. Only if attached to other signs-a middle-aged woman, a business address, or a synagogue-are they persuasive. Drivers are adept at deciphering deceitful signals, but trickery is occasionally undetectable, so they must adopt defensive strategies to minimize their exposure to harm. In Belfast, where drivers are locals and often have histories of paramilitary involvement, "macho" posturing often serves to deter would-be criminals, while New York cabbies, mostly immigrants who view themselves as outsiders, try simply to minimize the damage from attacks by appeasing robbers and carrying only small amounts of cash.

    For most people, erring in a trust decision leads to a broken heart or a few dollars lost. For cab drivers, such an error could mean losing their lives. The way drivers negotiate these high stakes offers us vivid insight into how to determine another person's trustworthiness. Written with clarity and color,Streetwiseinvites the reader to ride shotgun with cabbies as they grapple with a question of relevance to us all: which signs of trustworthiness can we really trust?

    A Volume in the Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-235-0
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    All you need to know to be a taxi driver is how to drive a car and find your way around the city, and sometimes not even that much. You pick up customers, drive them to where they want to go, get your due, and cruise off to collect yet another caller or to hunt for yet another hailer. Sometimes you negotiate the traffic, paying no attention to the passengers. Sometimes you vent your spleen on punishing taxation or corrupt local politicians to your captive audience. Occasionally you meet interesting or eccentric people, and sometimes you even act as a...


    • Chapter 1 Belfast and Its Taxi Drivers
      (pp. 31-45)

      Since 1969, Belfast has been at the epicenter of a political and civil conflict in Northern Ireland that has exacted a heavy toll on the population.¹ According to the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI), between 1969 and September 2001 there were 3,321 deaths and over 40,000 injuries as a result of the conflict; of this number, over half were civilians. Most of those killed (91 percent) were male, and the majority of deaths (53 percent) were among people under thirty years of age. Forty-three percent of those killed were Catholic, compared with 30 percent who were Protestant. Most of...

    • Chapter 2 Mimics in Belfast
      (pp. 46-59)

      Some of the work-related risks to which drivers are exposed in Belfast—such as having one’s car pelted with projectiles by thugs while driving through rough areas or being confronted by armed men for whatever reason—are not part of a trust game and do not involve mimicry. Seven Catholic black taxi drivers were murdered in the past twenty years not by paramilitaries posing as customers but by attackers directly shooting them. These murderers did not pretend to be anybody other than who they were.

      Other dangers may involve trust in some respect but not mimicry. When approached by a...

    • Chapter 3 Precautions in Belfast
      (pp. 60-71)

      As we illustrate in this chapter and the next, drivers screen their prospective customers through the signs that the customers emit. They do not, however, treat their “pick up or do not pick up” dilemma merely as a trust game. They also take many precautions to reduce the risk of bad encounters, employ a variety of deterrents, and resort to remedial actions in case they let in the wrong passengers. The actions they take depend, among other things, on which peril they are trying to avoid. Let us commence with the most fearsome one, namely, sectarian attacks.

      Almost all taxi...

    • Chapter 4 Screening in Belfast
      (pp. 72-88)

      Our expectation is that when deciding whether to trust a prospective fare, drivers pay a great deal of attention to the cues and signs displayed intentionally or otherwise by that person. Above all, we expect that they look for reliable signs in that person of being either a good or a bad customer, namely, signs that are too costly for a mimic to fake but affordable for the genuine article, given the benefit that each party can expect in the situation. Drivers are not, in other words, either erratic in the signs they watch for or easily satisfied by cheaply...

    • Chapter 5 Probing in Belfast
      (pp. 89-106)

      The passenger screening process described in the previous chapter relies either on dispatchers’ filtering of information revealed by callers or on drivers’ direct observations of signs displayed by prospective fares. This information may be sufficiently clear: if signs are starkly negative drivers reject the fare, and if positive they pick up the fare. However, that information may be—and often is—inconclusive. Our expectation is that, when in doubt, drivers probe further and try to extract more information from passengers. To do this they have to feel reassured enough to engage in closer interaction. Sometimes they may agree to pick...


    • Chapter 6 New York and Its Taxi Drivers
      (pp. 109-121)

      There is hardly a city in the world in whose brand image taxis are more powerfully etched than New York. Among other large cities in the world, only London, with its black cabs, offers some competition in this regard. An icon of New York as much as skyscrapers or the music of Gershwin, New York yellow cabs appear everywhere in postcards, stories, films, and even as toys. They evoke the ceaseless buzzing of the metropolis and represent the at once nervous and lighthearted determination of all travelers in New York in negotiating obstacles to get somewhere. In a city in...

    • Chapter 7 Mimics in New York
      (pp. 122-136)

      A part from drunken customers, many of whom cannot hide their state even if they want to, Belfast drivers are exposed to three insidious perils from passengers, or rather, from mimics of them: runners, robbers, and, worst of all, paramilitaries intent on hijacking their car or harming them for sectarian reasons. In addition, drivers who are breaking the industry laws and regulations fear undercover DOE agents who pass themselves off as passengers in order to try to catch them in flagrante delicto.

      In New York drivers also worry about runners and robbers, though not about sectarian attacks. This does not make...

    • Chapter 8 Precautions in New York
      (pp. 137-148)

      New york drivers, like their Belfast counterparts, do not rely solely on screening but act to limit their risks by taking general precautions in addition to the specific cautions they take with certain passengers. And like their Northern Irish colleagues, they keep in mind a menu of remedial actions to be taken in case they let in the wrong customer. These remedial actions depend on the customer’s type—for example, whether they are drunk or violent or have no money to pay the fare.

      Before they pick up a passenger, drivers take measures to limit both the extent to which...

    • Chapter 9 Screening in New York
      (pp. 149-169)

      In chapter 4, we documented the ways in which Belfast drivers, in addition to taking many precautions to protect their safety and making contingency plans for handling dangerous situations, pay a great deal of attention to the cues and signs displayed by prospective fares. In chapter 5, we also described the array of actions that they take to probe suspicious fares, both before and after taking them on board. We expect New York drivers to engage in similar screening and probing efforts. Our goal is to uncover the logic that governs their “street-level epistemology” (Hardin 1993). A key feature of...

    • Chapter 10 Probing in New York
      (pp. 170-184)

      As we reported in the last chapter, New York drivers glean some information from their initial observation of potential customers. All of the drivers agree, however, that there is no fool-proof way to establish a passenger’s trustworthiness by first appearances only: “You can have trouble from anybody. You never know when you have trouble. Sometimes you look at the old lady, you have trouble. Sometimes you look at the young man, you got trouble . . . you never know” (driver BR3). Some learn the hard way. One driver was shot in the shoulder after he picked up two men...


    • Chapter 11 Street Wisdom Appraised
      (pp. 187-221)

      Our fieldwork has provided a detailed account of how taxi drivers in two cities think and act to protect their safety. In spite of city and individual variations and idiosyncrasies, the overall results show that drivers possess a high level of reasoning sophistication in handling their daily risks that surpassed our expectations.

      We cannot establish to what extent their skills are due to self-selection or to learning on the job, and most plausibly both mechanisms are present. Drivers who have been taxiing longer believe they get better at screening, and they were certainly more reflective about their practices. However, they...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 222-230)
  10. Glossary
    (pp. 231-232)
  11. References
    (pp. 233-238)
  12. Index
    (pp. 239-243)