Putting the brakes on taxi crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 1993, 12:00am

SINCE December 1991, the Government has been working on a Taxi Policy Review which aims not only at curbing the taxi cheats but also at upgrading the quality of services. Yet today, taxis drivers are still holding the public to ransom.

While the Transport Department remains silent on the issue, the public, concern groups, legislators and taxi drivers themselves have all offered solutions to the problem.

However, Transport Advisory Committee (TAC) members say it is these same diverse opinions which have delayed the formulation of policies which would safeguard the interests of all parties.

Take the proposed demerit points system. The 1988 Taxi Policy Review recommended that a demerit points system be introduced to suspend taxi drivers' licences after they accumulated a certain number of points for convictions of malpractice.

The proposal also suggested that disqualification be mandatory, rather than subject to the court's discretion.

But, according to the Consultative Paper on Taxi Policy Review published last October, the proposal was never implemented because it was ''pending the implementation of other recommendations arising from the 1988 review''.

Professor Leung Chi-keung, the chairman of Transport Advisory Committee, said the proposal was never popular.

''The counter-proposal seems to be that there is a law, why don't [we] enforce it? So it is a question of enforcement,'' he said.

With a successful clampdown operation on taxi malpractices in Tsim Sha Tsui East, is policing the key to the problem? Appointed Legislative Councillor Mrs Miriam Lau Kin-yee, convenor of the Legco Transport Panel, believes that police operations could stop the present situation worsening.

''If you have identified certain taxi malpractices, you've got to [clampdown] for a period of time, maybe a couple months, then it really stamps them out,'' Mrs Lau said.

''At the moment it's not consistent and people who are engaged in these malpractices probably think that it's worth taking the risk.'' She feels another law enforcement agency may have to be involved. ''I think it is time to review the function of traffic wardens, for instance. They should be more active in identifying areas of malpractice. I don't know how it'll work, but at the moment, all I can say is that enforcement is not efficient.'' CHIEF executive of the Automobile Association Phil Taylor also feels that relying solely on the police to stamp out the problem is impractical.

''There are about 17,500 taxis on the road today. To have plain-clothes police keeping continuous surveillance is unrealistic,'' he said.

''One has not only to look at beefing up enforcement of the law. Unless you introduce management control over taxis by legislating, nothing will change.'' He suggested that taxi owners should have to belong to companies which have administrative and legal power over the way taxis are operated.

Mrs Lau believes that members of the taxi trade must first learn to regulate themselves. She suggested that they get together to form two associations, one for drivers and one for owners.

''If there are difficulties in forming these associations, the Government can help out and, if necessary, put through legislation.

She said that the Government could try to talk to the taxi trade but it was difficult for them to interfere as Hong Kong is a free trade city.

''It's really up to the trade to see if they can come up with something that solves the problem.'' But the Government could do something to tackle the grey area of taxi licence speculation. ''I appreciate the urgency of the matter. The Government has not issued any licences for the last two years. They are due to because it's time there were more taxis on the road to balance supply and demand,'' Mrs Lau said.

One proposal which has been put forward is that the Government should not announce in advance the number of licences to be issued - usually 400 every two years. Instead, it should let the market dictate the number.

''The value of licences will come down and therefore makes life harder for speculators,'' Mrs Lau said.

Mr Taylor agrees that the Government should not issue any more licences under the present system. But he believes speculation can never be stamped out. To him, issuing licences according to market demand is impractical because Hong Kong roads would not be able to cope with a huge increase in taxis.

''You would probably have to have 50,000 taxis to satisfy demand and that is impractical in traffic terms. Note that 35 per cent of the traffic mix in congested urban areas now are taxis,'' he said.

He suggested that limousine taxi services (similar to the ones in Japan) be introduced. They are more expensive but offer a much better service.

The Taxi Policy Review working group is now studying 20 proposals, including simplifying complaints procedures, making taxi drivers issue fare receipts to deter overcharging and the demerit points system.

Another suggestion is that taxi drivers should take written tests on their knowledge of locations, routes and taxi regulations at regular intervals.

They should also undergo compulsory periodic medical examinations and form organisations to promote professional standards.

''It is a step forward to simplify the complaints procedure and make it easier for complainants to identify the culprits,'' Mrs Lau said.

''That's why driver identity plates have been proposed. They will enable the complainant to identify who is driving, and because the plate is there, the driver will be more careful.''