Friday, April 1, 2011

A Response to Channel Seven’s Today Tonight’s Report “Cabbies on Notice”.

Today Tonight’s Report:

Cabbies on Notice (You may have to scroll down to find it, titled “Cabbies on Notice”.)

The first thing that alarmed me was the title of the show, “Cabbies on Notice”. We see graphic on-board camera footage of a knife being held to a taxi driver’s throat, and they title it Cabbies on notice? What viewers saw in that footage is neither common, nor exactly rare. I’ve been a night-shift cab driver for just over four years now, and have had the opportunity to talk to many drivers, some veterans, some relatively new to the industry, but I never fail to be amazed at the number of stories of verbal and physical abuse suffered at the hands of the public. My anecdotal estimation is that at least 70 to 80 percent of drivers I have talked to experienced greater or lesser forms of physical abuse. Every single one, including me, has experienced verbal abuse, almost always from drunk people. Lesser forms of physical abuse include unwanted touching, and things like “friendly” punches or a tap on the head. The public has no right to touch any taxi driver, in any way, except in the form of a handshake or a soft “I like you” tap. Yet it sometimes goes well beyond this. Most taxi drivers are male, at least among night-shift drivers, because it is too dangerous for females to work at night, so it appears that some feel it’s “okay” to “touch” a male driver when they will not do it to a female because of possible legal consequences.

Before going any further, I think it is imperative that I fully acknowledge the public complaints about taxi drivers. I am sometimes appalled at the way rude taxi drivers treat their customers, and there’s no valid excise for this providing the customer is polite and doesn’t warrant “reciprocal” treatment. Let’s get technical here. Sometimes a customer’s initial words and manners can upset a driver, especially when they refuse to give a destination address and say “just drive!” Sometimes they will even refuse to say which direction, and then blame the driver for going in the wrong direction. Then when the driver retaliates by either kicking them out or becoming equally arrogant, Channel 7 and other media will probably report it as “driver abuse”. We need to look at both sides of this complex issue. Are there rude and renegade taxi drivers? Most certainly, and maybe some of them have developed this temperament because of their increasing cynicism to the public in general, but if that is the case then maybe they should be looking for employment elsewhere. Fortunately, most people are decent and respectful (although a bad Saturday night could cause that perspective to temporally waver), and I think this is what keeps most drivers hopeful for humanity in general, that the majority of customers will be polite, and even sympathetic to a job most admit they will never do, even for a “hundred grand a year”, because of having to deal with the public and other associated risks. However, my observation remains, that a minority of drivers are ill-tempered, rude, and unsuited for the job, yet they can bring a bad name to all of us. It takes little effort to be polite to people, and in 95 percent of cases the politeness will be recompensed. Just as the public renegades and abusers are in a minority, so are the rude and renegade taxi drivers. This is a “human problem”, and it extends not only to taxi drivers, but to all people who have to deal with the public. Service station attendants are at as much risk (or even more) of verbal abuse, attack or robbery, perhaps even more than taxi drivers are. I don’t particularly see us taxi drivers as “martyrs” for a single cause. Dealing with the a moody and often unpredictable public just isn’t an easy job.

I agree with Mr. Michael Jools (featured on Today Tonight) , president of the Australian Taxi Drivers Association, who points out that it’s not always drivers who are at fault, but I also agree with his observation that the taxi industry needs to be “cleaned up”. Let’s address the points made on Today Tonight regarding taxi drivers:

1. Poor street knowledge.

Long time and experienced drivers will obviously know their way around better than a driver who’s been in the job one week, or even one day. Sydney and Melbourne are big cities, and not even the most experienced driver is going to remember every street. Because taxi driving is a high turnover industry, because of risks and poor pay, and encourages novices seeking to earn a dollar, perhaps they will have to rely on a GPS navigator to start with. It takes time to become experienced, but if the rewards in the industry aren’t sufficient to motivate long term employment, then the public will have to keep dealing with new drivers who don’t know their basic way. Knowledge tests are not all they are made out to be, because only practical experience will enable a driver to remember streets, and he/she has to do that “on the job”. Maybe the government could create greater incentives for drivers to stay in the industry, and become experienced, but so far they have done pathetically little. There simply has to be greater rewards for time and investment in the industry, and this won’t happen until the financial incentives are there. If the government is willing to foster a three year “graduation program” for taxi drivers to learn all of Sydney, for example, and subsidise this, then maybe “poor street knowledge” complaints will reduce? They have more important priorities, it seems, like running free buses at taxpayer expense.

2. Bad Driving.

Yes this is also a problem. Being a former driving instructor I’m a bit pedantic about this, but erratic taxi drivers who constantly break the law, I’m afraid to say, are far too many. The obligation to observe road rules is written into the taxi laws, and customers are far more observant of this than I suspect taxi drivers are aware of, hence the complaints. Make no mistake, they (customers) will observe whether drivers obey the law, and they will expect it because drivers have their life in their hands, and driving at 80 kmh in a 60 kmh zone will not go unnoticed. Something not included, yet, in obtaining a taxi licence, is passing a basic RTA road rules test, and maybe that should be implemented into obtaining a taxi licence. In essence, bad or unobservant drivers should be weeded out. People are paying for this transport, and they deserve the highest safety standards attainable.

3. Rude Tempered.

As I stated above, drivers who cannot handle dealing with the public may be in the wrong job. Not wanting to sound like Big Brother, but maybe psychological assessments for the suitability of taxi driving should be done. Someone with a short fuse might not qualify. As far as I’m aware, no taxi training course comprehensively covers how to deal with stressful situations; how to administer first aid, and how to deal with, for example, schizophrenia and other mental problems of customers. I know this comment will probably attract more “bureaucracy”, but the fact is that taxi drivers have to deal a multitude of human psychoses, and have no idea where to begin dealing with them. As beginners, as far as they are concerned, all they need to do is “remember streets”, but are not taught how to deal with “real life” problems.

4. Refusing fares.

Unless a person is affected by alcohol, drugs, or acts abusively, a taxi driver is not supposed to refuse a fare. Apart from those specified grounds, it is illegal to refuse a fare, no matter how short or unprofitable. Tell me about it, like the night I waited one and a half hours on a rank only to get a $6.50 fare when the three cars behind me all got M24s, or out of area jobs worth no less than $240.00. You win some, and you lose some, but a taxi driver’s first obligation is to serve the public, and creating a good public image will increase confidence in the taxi industry, thus leading to more patronage, and a better overall result. I honestly can’t think of any situation where my losses (short fares) weren’t made up for in gains (long fares). Yes, we are “in it for the money”, but we are also a service industry which provides a vital community service, and sometimes that community obligation is more important than “earning money” (in the short term). Some drivers, apparently, don’t understand this, and think that every fare should be profitable for Number One.

5. Lack of cleanliness.

Some people take pride in cleanliness, others don’t, and they don’t reflect well on the industry in general. Some mutual respect is expected here, too. If you leave your empty beer cans, and your empty champagne bottles to roll around the back floor before the driver discovers it, he may be left with the blame. After you munch on your “Maccas” (which, incidentally is illegal, since eating in a cab is illegal, but your driver may tolerate it because he doesn’t want to offend you), then make sure you clear up your mess before leaving the cab. It’s the same as smoking. I’ve been asked a zillion times, “can I smoke?” Okay, so you want to smoke, but what about the next customer who complains about a “smoke smell” in the cab. The driver is left to deal with that because you think that you have “rights” without responsibility for the next person who enters the cab. READ the laws; smoking is not allowed in cabs. Don’t think you can get into a cab and do what you like, including “pissing up” on grog and behaving like bogans and not expect the driver to become upset. Would you like someone invading your office, farting, belching, cussing, and maybe even calling you a “moron”? That’s basically what we taxi drivers have to put up with, and yet Today Tonight says in the most tabloid fashion, “Cabbies on Notice”.

6. Poor English.

In this regard, I offer the following You Tube video:

While it is true that many cab drivers are not exactly versed in Fowler’s English, many of them are new migrants just trying to earn a living, like everyone else, and as I said, it takes time to learn. They are not going to know Sydney, or Melbourne, like locals who’ve been driving for 20 or 30 years, and all you have to do, to help them gain some confidence before they learn, is direct them if they are unsure of the way, or be patient while they use a GPS. If this really bothers you, then maybe you should ask why the turnover in this industry is so high that it is always requiring new recruits and not retaining most of the old ones. The experienced Aussie driver in the video was just spreading more vain stereotypes, and frankly, was just racist. If the Afghani driver spoke with an Aussie accent, he would have sounded more convincing, but as fate would have it, he was just an innocent abroad, on his first day cab driving, and just like you and me, trying to earn a decent living in an extremely difficult job.

The problems and challenges in the taxi industry will not be solved by biased, parochial, and even racist, attitudes. That the taxi industry needs improvement is without question, and in my opinion one way to do that is by tougher screening checks and even the possibility of subjecting applicants to appropriate psychological tests to determine whether they are capable of working in this high pressure industry. Not a thought I particularly relish since I’m rather “anti-bureaucracy”, but it seems to me that public complaints about the general state of the taxi industry may well justify this approach. That we in the taxi industry need to “get our act together”, seems unquestionable, but this cannot be done through shallow, racist, biased, and irresponsible approaches. How about, for a start, we stop talking about “ethnic drivers”? And realise that for the past 30 or more years “ethnic drivers” have been the very backbone of the taxi industry in Australia. They were prepared to make the sacrifices of working two jobs until they could survive on one, and to put in the “hard yakka” that most mainstream Aussies were unprepared to do. Their enormous contributions to this country, and many of them have come from oppressive regimes, has not been met with the respect it duly deserves. Anyone hear of the saying "fair go"?

Related link:

Link posted 11/4/11: City's mean streets turn on cabbie at Kings Cross

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