Do recent Hong Kong hit-and-run cab incidents signal the return of ‘shadow taxis’?

Illegal vehicles were once rampant in 2003 during the Sars epidemic, and industry now fears that trend may further tarnish its image

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 11:21pm

Two recent unsolved crimes have raised concerns about the possible re-emergence in Hong Kong of “shadow taxis”– vehicles operating with forged licence plates and documents.

The scam allows fraudsters to avoid paying rent for taxis or sky-high licence fees of around HK$7 million per vehicle. But legitimate operators are worried about losing passengers’ trust in an industry constantly criticised for poor service.

In the first case, a female passenger was thrown out of a taxi, while the second involved a cabbie fleeing the scene after knocking down and killing a 60-year-old man pushing a cart.

Both incidents sparked public outrage and further damaged the reputation of the industry.

At about 5.30am on March 25, a 33-year-old woman of South Asian descent flagged down a taxi in Wan Chai and asked to be taken to Happy Valley, but the driver refused and demanded she get out.

The woman refused to alight and tried to call police, but the driver quickly grabbed her phone, tossed it out of the taxi and opened the back door.

When the woman again refused to leave the vehicle, the driver kept going for about 30 metres and made a sudden right turn with the passenger door still open, flinging her out of the car. The taxi fled the scene, leaving the woman injured.

A police spokeswoman said the taxi was suspected to be using a fake licence plate with a number belonging to another vehicle.

“An investigation is still under way. No arrest has been made so far,” she said.

The second case involved a fatal accident at about 4am on May 20, when an elderly victim pushing a cart was hit by a taxi at a road junction in Kowloon City.

Surveillance footage released by police showed the driver slowing to a halt and leaving the taxi after the accident to check for damage, then driving off without attending to the victim, who later died.

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The police spokeswoman said no arrest had been made in the second case either, and the culprit was still at large.

“The footage failed to capture the cab’s licence plate number so we can’t identify this hit-and-run taxi. We don’t know if it was a fake taxi or not,” she said.

At least two suspected cases of “shadow taxis” have been reported to police this year, including one incident in February when the fake cab was found parked in Cheung Sha Wan, just 200 metres from a real taxi with the same licence plate number.

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Police figures show the number of missing cabs – which may have been converted into “shadow taxis” – has been on the rise over the past five years: from 14 in 2012 to 24 last year. In the first four months of this year, two taxis were reported missing.

Chan Man-keung, chairman of the Association of Taxi Industry Development, said operators and drivers also wanted to catch these “black sheep”. But he could not confirm if “shadow taxis” had made a resurgence. They were once rampant in 2003 as the city’s economy was devastated by the Sars epidemic.

“The best way to deter these operators is to conduct more checks on taxis at some black spots such as the airport to see if their vehicle chassis numbers match their licence discs,” he said.