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Fed up with drugs, taxi owner scales back

November 28, 2000

Fed up with drugs, taxi owner scales back



By ANDREW SCHOTZ / Staff Writer


George Turner is cutting back on his taxi business, and Hagerstown's drug trade is a big reason why.

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The owner of Turner Taxi said he is fed up with having his cars and drivers "unwilling participants" in drug deals.

Starting Friday, Turner is switching his taxi service to a sedan service.

Cars and vans will be available about 16 hours a day instead of 24. Customers will no longer be able to flag down passing vehicles on the street, but will have to call in for rides.

The vehicle colors will change from blue and white to gray, and the roof lights will be removed.

Turner Transportation, the name of the new ride service, also will have greater discretion to turn away fares than Turner Taxi did. Taxi regulations require cabs to give rides to all "orderly" customers, but sedan laws don't, according to Turner.

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George Turner is trying to limit the number of calls to high-crime neighborhoods where a driver often is asked to wait while drug business is carried out.

"We're just saying if there's a highly suspicious situation, we're not going to be a part of it," he said.

Turner's trucking business, Turner Transportation Group, which he bought nine years ago, will not be affected by the change.

During an interview at his Hagerstown office Tuesday, Turner, 55, said he's also frustrated with having to weed out drug- or alcohol-abusing cab driver applicants. He said he would like to have a law that requires mandatory drug screening for all drivers who transport the public.

Since March, Turner has required a photo identification and fingerprints from applicants, and checks their criminal and driving records.

Despite his scrutiny, he estimated that up to 30 percent of his drivers in recent years have been drug users. They were mixed in with some dependable, loyal drivers.

"I want to get rid of any connections ... with the drug trade," he said. "I've never liked it. It's a destroyer of people."

Turner said the changes will bolster security and confidence. "Always in the past, I've been able to provide a safe environment for both my passengers and my drivers," he said, "and I can no longer do this. The drugs out there (are) horrendous."

George Free, a Turner driver for more than 11 years, said it's usually obvious when a fare is on the way to buy or sell drugs. "Whatever you're trying to do, do it away from the cab," he said he tells them.

It would be fine to steer clear of the crime spots, said Free, the victim of two attempted robberies when he drove the night shift. Once, he was smacked in the head with a full can of beer during a ride to Scotland, Pa. Another time, on Mitchell Avenue in Hagerstown, his throat was cut.

His wife wanted Free to stop driving, but he was eager to get back. "I enjoy working with people," he said.

Turner plans to keep his sedan service open about 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Rides at other times will be provided by appointment.

This will leave Antietam Cab as the only taxi ride in town during the off hours.

From 1978 to 1999, when Antietam started serving Hagerstown, Turner said, his was the only local taxi company.

Thomas and Frances Turner, George's parents, founded Turner Taxi in 1969. They had just one car, and Thomas Turner drove it.

The company survived the oil embargo of 1973 and a bad economy. Six competitors failed.

George Turner, who worked for the company from the start, said the emergence of the County Commuter bus line and scores of federally funded vans has cut into his business.

The life of the city's streets has been another economic factor. There was a time when a cab driver could cruise the downtown and see 15 or 20 people waiting for a ride. "Now, you can sit for two hours and see no one," Turner said.

Turner's rates have been fixed at $3.70 for a ride across the city, with a minimum fare of $1.70, since 1991, he said. The company started losing money about five or six years ago.

Turner, who will continue to give free rides on New Year's Eve and Christmas, hopes that by cutting his fleet of vehicles from 30 to 20 and concentrating on the prime hours, business will pick up again.

He's grooming his son, Thomas Lee Turner III, to take over, but he doesn't know when that will happen.

"I'm tempted to get out of the business altogether," George Turner said. "But I've been doing this for so long, it's like cutting off my right arm."

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