A taxi driver picks up a passenger at Kai Tak airport and drives to the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Wan Chai. Thank you, says the driver, pointing to the $1,500 fare on the meter. He is promptly arrested; the passenger is an undercover policeman, not an easily duped tourist. Why does not such duplicity alarm and surprise many? One reason is this is the behaviour you can expect from a transport trade into which entry is almost completely unsupervised. Almost anyone can become a taxi driver. The result of such slackness is only to be expected; service is bad and getting worse. The overcharging case is the tip of the iceberg. Last year, police uncovered 1,639 taxi-meter offences which led to charges; there were 399 in the first five months of this year. Last year, police charged 34 drivers with overcharging passengers and another 127 drivers were charged with going by roundabout routes that add dollars to the fare. Last year, there were 527 drivers before the courts charged with refusing to take a passenger to his destination. This number is partially balanced by the 213 drivers charged with soliciting fares. Much of the trouble can be traced back to the ease with which almost anyone can get a licence to drive a taxi. Even criminals. Being a murderer or rapist is not grounds, in the view of the Transport Department, to prevent anyone from earning a living driving a taxi. There is no regulation to check criminal records of people who seek taxi licences, nor will such requirements be introduced. This leaves us with the worrying possibility that a man at the wheel of a taxi driving a lone female home at 4am to a remote village could be a convicted rapist, thief or murderer. There are 18,138 taxis licensed to be on the roads in Hong Kong, and 32,000 people have licences that enable them to drive taxis. Getting a taxi driver's licence is simple. All you need is to have held a car licence for three years and pass a simple written test. As long as you have not been convicted of drunken driving or reckless driving in the previous five years, off you go. The Commissioner of Transport, the authority who licences taxi drivers, does not have the power to check other criminal records of applicants. The department adds that having a criminal record 'does not imply that the driving of the applicant may be a source of danger to the public'. 'There is no substantial evidence to prove that people with certain criminal records are not suitable to drive or more likely to drive dangerously,' it says. This is probably right. But it misses the point. There should be some reassurance for the public that taxi drivers are not homicidal maniacs, sex offenders or thieves with a long string of convictions. Last week, a taxi driver lost his licence because he drove 'furiously' down a Wan Chai street with an angry motorist clinging to his bonnet. The taxi driver had cut in front of another motorist and when an argument erupted, the taxi zigzagged down the road with the terrified motorist clinging for his life to the bonnet. This driver will be walking the pavement for six months. When his suspension is over, he will be able to drive once more. Entry into the taxi business is too easy. Anyone with enough cash can buy a taxi registration, which are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The winners do not have to be owner-drivers, which would be the ideal solution. The result is that people driving taxis pay a large daily rental for the vehicles. Taxi drivers have to scrabble for fares to make sufficient money to pay the car rent, the fuel and make a profit. So it is little wonder that drivers who work under twin pressures - making a living and coping with the constant stress of driving in our streets - sometimes tend to be less than charming and courteous. The ideal solution would be to have owner-drivers. If every driver owned his taxi, or if ownership was limited, at most, to four individuals who must drive a few shifts a week, many of the obvious transgressions of the trade could be eliminated. This will not happen. The selling of licence plates to the highest bidder obviates this. If the sales had been limited to owner-drivers, we would probably have a significantly better service today. Much of the policy governing taxis is set by the Transport Advisory Committee. I polled the 14 worthies in charge asking how often they used taxis and if they were happy with the service. Complacency reigns; I got two answers. TAC chairman Cheung Hon-kwan says 'yes and no, it depends' when asked if he is happy with taxis. The only other respondent was Secretary for Transport Gordon Siu, who points out that taxi drivers are self-employed entrepreneurs, 'in some ways examples of the thousands of self-employed in our midst'. 'They enjoy their freedom, are often big-hearted and can be quick-tempered,' Mr Siu added. He is right, of course. Taxi drivers tend to be individualists. But they are there to perform a public service. People are entitled to board taxis with the reasonable expectation that the drivers charioteers are not dangerous criminals and know where they are going. At present, there are no such guarantees.