Spare a thought for the drivers from hell

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 August, 1997, 12:00am


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Thursday afternoon and typhoon signal three is up. A pair of middle-aged women flag down a minibus along Caine Road as the rain buckets down.

The first passenger clambers aboard; the second woman has one foot on the bottom step, trying to collapse her umbrella at the same time as boarding when the concertina door slams shut on her. The driver does not turn around, he can just feel that the door will not close. He winds it back as the stunned woman struggles to regain her footing. Slam! Once more the unfolding door clobbers her with a hollow, visceral thump.

The first passenger holds the door open while the dazed woman gropes for something to support herself. The driver whips the door shut for a third time, narrowly missing its human target. Simultaneously he stabs at the accelerator pedal and the minibus moves off with all the smoothness of a bucking bronco on amphetamines, and the already-battered second passenger becomes a sprawling mass on the seats.

The driver's eyes were fixed on the road as he took the minibus from Pokfulam to Causeway Bay in the quickest possible time without exciting the interest of the police.

Unfortunately he was being continually held up and disturbed by passengers who insisted on boarding.

After years of empirical research - taking thousands of minibus and taxi rides - my findings suggest that if you take a normal well-adjusted Hong Kong person and give them the keys to a bus or taxi they are transformed into a deranged misanthrope.

Studies in the United States on the physical strain endured by long-distance lorry drivers show they suffer long-term back and neck problems, as well as constipation and dehydration. Add to these basic discomforts Hong Kong's constant traffic jams, unending exposure to carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes belched by light goods vehicles, and the irritating jingle-jangle of a good luck idol suspended from the dashboard, and it is no wonder passengers often complain drivers have all the inter-personal skills of a scorpion.

This poisonous environmental brew is aggravated further because the cost of renting the vehicle may not be covered by the fares collected. Many resort to back-to-back shifts to boost their pay. Sadly that can mean ingesting something a little stronger than cigarettes to keep them going.

Earlier this year a minibus crash in the New Territories prompted a rash of lurid newspaper articles suggesting a substantial number of drivers took stimulants to get through their double, and frequently treble shifts. For those of us who rely on buses and taxis to get around on a daily basis it is horrifying to think our driver may be pumped up with the substances Kamikaze pilots used to put them in the mood.

I once visited a government-funded heroin rehabilitation centre on an outlying island. One member of staff confessed that his memory for names was very poor, but since most of his charges went through the basic programme at least five times before they kicked the habit he could recall the faces of many of the thousands of addicts who had passed through his hands.

He only rarely travelled into the centre to attend meetings in Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, but when he got off the ferry and took a taxi he would often recognise one of his former patients, or they would remember him. 'How often?' I asked.

'Oh, I reckon more than half of the taxi drivers in Hong Kong are current, recovering or former heroin addicts.' I was gobsmacked as he continued. 'You shouldn't worry. If you had the choice of three surgeons to operate on you and one was an alcoholic, the other smoked marijuana and the third was on heroin which one would you choose? 'If it was me I would ask for the last one because the alcoholic would have the shakes, the pot smoker would have his head in the clouds but heroin addicts take it to restore their sense of normality, their equilibrium.' On reflection, the idea that most public transport drivers are out of their minds on dope is highly exaggerated. At the end of a taxi journey the driver gave me a bit of paper and asked me how to pronounce the words written on it, skeleton, exacerbate and gaunt.

Flattered, I went through each syllable by syllable, even fat-headedly explaining the different ways Americans and British people said 'gaunt'.

It took 10 minutes and he kept the meter running. So who was the dope this time?