Friday, September 18, 2009

Taxi Drivers Under The Microscope.

Recent reports in the Sunday
and Daily Telegraph highlighted some of the problems in the taxi industry.

According to the Sunday Telegraph:

The drivers were exposed after The Sunday Telegraph approached 106 taxis at Sydney's Kings Cross two weekends ago seeking a fare to Bondi Beach…. Of the 106 taxis we approached, 11 demanded a flat fare and 82 refused the job.

Since I’m not a Sydney cabbie I can’t definitely say why they refused the job, but 82 refusals seems excessive. One reason could be a too short fare (hence asking for an overcharged flat rate). My taxi calculator estimates Kings Cross to Bondi at approximately $22.00. A Wollongong cabbie would be only too happy for such a fare, even on a busy weekend, but when you consider that a Sydney cabbie can earn $85.00 from Kings Cross to Parramatta; $65.00 to Mortdale, or $72.00 to Sutherland, it’s not hard to understand why they might become a little picky. Nevertheless, it is against the Ministry of Transport regulations to refuse any fare without a valid reason. Potential customers can be rejected if they’re excessively drunk, suspected to be on drugs, or behaving disorderly. However, most drivers can usually see this a long way off and will not stop in the first place.

The real problem is that there’s no pay-first system. If you get on a bus, a train, or even use a hire car, when do you pay? At your destination? I don’t think the public fully realises how mentally harrowing it can be for a taxi driver to be doing a $50.00 fare (estimate) not knowing whether he’s going to be paid at the destination. It’s farcical. My last runner, by the way, was only about a month ago, a $45.00 fare. The young “gentleman” seemed quite okay, talked to me nicely, and I had no reason to suspect he’d do a runner. But it happens – too bloody often. A call to the nearest police station is most of the time useless, because runners have become just part and parcel of the taxi industry, and it’s almost “expected” to happen - often. I’ve had three runners caught by police, all times officers just happened to be at the scene. One was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police wagon, much to my delight. But you have to be very lucky to have police at the scene. Once I had a $50 runner. I knew exactly where they lived because they stupidly darted into a house right in front of me. I called the police three times over a period of one hour and twenty minutes, and each time I was told they were “too busy right now”. I felt humiliated, first by the runners, then by the police, but it bears out my point that this is “expected to happen”. No worries, “it’s only a taxi driver”.

So let’s weigh this from the taxi driver’s perspective. We cop abuse, verbal, and sometimes physical, and sometimes racism; we endure runners and lost time and money while the law turns a blind eye. Sometimes we have to put up with mere excuses for human beings, but someone has to take them home. Customers sometimes also use the threat of demanding the driver’s ID and reporting them over a petty matter. It can be a stressful job and not one for the fainthearted.

From the customer’s perspective. You need not pay any more than what’s on the fare meter, but you may be charged $50.00 for vomiting in a taxi (mainly drunks), or defacing or damaging a taxi. Some drivers will do deals, but they will mostly be deals in favour of the customer. If it’s a quiet night I’d have little hesitation in accepting $40.00 for what might normally be a $50.00 fare, but certainly not half price, unless I’m heading home to knock off in the direction the customer is going. This also presents another problem. “Doing deals” is becoming too common. Another reason for pay-first and flat rates over longer distances, if nothing else (1). Some customers are professional leeches who will exploit the weakness of drivers for as little as $5.00 off the normal fare. I had one a few nights ago. I estimated the fare at $25.00 (I wasn’t far wrong, as it was $25.50), but the customer said at the start she only had $22.00. So while she munched on her bag of potato chips, probably worth $3.00, I was left $3.00 short. No big deal, you say? Well try going into a kebab shop and paying $5.00 for an $8.00 kebab and see the reception you get. Or give it a go at Dominos; hand over $4.00 for a $7.00 pizza and wait for the fireworks. But for us, “it’s only a taxi driver”. It is “to be expected”.

Now I’m not saying that all taxi drivers are saints; there are renegades in the industry who not only try to rip off customers, but will also try to steal jobs from other drivers. They are marked men once they develop such a reputation, but most drivers are decent and honest people who will always do the right thing by customers and their workmates. It’s not easy being a taxi driver, but it can also be a very rewarding profession in the sense of helping people and providing an essential community service. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard remarks like “you’re a life-saver, thanks for picking me up”. Most customers do the right thing, and I still have faith that most people are decent and honest. But even as few as five percent of thieving or misbehaving low-lives can ruin your night and taint your view of the job. That’s why it’s such a high turnover industry – few are prepared to take it on and last the distance.

There is still a long way to go before much needed improvements are made to make the job more attractive, and safer. Until then, I hope that the authorities view the problems from both perspectives, customers and drivers.


1) I should elaborate that the flat-rate system already applies to out of area fares. Wollongong to Sydney Central on tariff two (10pm-6am), for example, is charged at the flat-rate of $240.00, payable before departure. I'm not advocating flat-rates for local jobs, but regulated minimum up-front payable rates. For example, Wollongong to Shellharbour should have a minimum up-front rate of $50.00. If the fare is less, the cabbie reimburses the customer, or vice-versa.


1. Pre-pay taxi fares to stop runners

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