The SFO Cannonball Run

Horrified by a typical taxi trip from SFO? Thank a government program that pays cabbies to speed.

Washington's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center compiled a chart, at my request, of speed-related injuries and deaths on the 12 miles between SFO and downtown. The number of speed-related injuries and deaths along that corridor was not significantly different from the statistics for the route connecting Oakland International Airport, which doesn't have the same short-trip incentive system, to that city's downtown hotels.

However, Washington said this cursory analysis didn't indicate speeding taxis aren't a problem."We'd have to actually study it carefully and put some significant resources into it to produce a meaningful result," he said. "Logically and fundamentally, there is an issue with an economic incentive to speed. It puts people at risk, and it's a fundamental flaw. You don't want to set up systems that compromise public safety."

After racing through SOMA, rolling through the Marriott's carport, and heading back toward the 101 onramp, my driver seems simultaneously panicked and ecstatic.

"Now is the real thing," he says."We have 13 minutes left. It's almost impossible now."

Apparently that's short-line-wizard-speak for "we have to drive like absolute lunatics."

We rip onto the freeway, our stubby SUV rocking from side to side. Once on the elevated platform heading south, we're quickly above 90 mph.

Still, things seem dicey as we blaze through the Candlestick Flats.

My driver's GPS unit shows we are three miles from the airport kiosk where he swipes his card to get into the short line. And we have only two minutes before the 30-minute deadline.

"You see how it comes down to seconds," he says, as we race at 85 mph, then at 90 mph on the 45 mph zone on the airport offramp. "I'm still not going to give up."

Consultant Hansu Kim, who advises the MTA on taxi policy, told me in an interview that the short-line reckless driving problem is sometimes overstated: "It's 's impossible to drive someone to downtown or to the north of the city and back in less than 30 minutes."

But, back in my driver's cab, the GPS unit shows we have one mile to go. The meter, meanwhile, shows we have 60 seconds left on our 30-minute clock. My cabbie drives double the speed limit under the green SFO departing-flights sign.

And we make it in time to enter the short line.

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