After putting the brakes on Uber, how about cracking down on our own taxi drivers?

Yonden Lhatoo accuses the police of adopting double standards, after the crackdown on Uber, by ignoring local cabbies who regularly flout the law

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 August, 2015, 7:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

So Hong Kong is cracking down on Uber, the American car-hailing service that’s trying to make inroads into the city’s taxi business. Police have raided Uber’s office and arrested drivers accused of breaking the law by using cars to pick up passengers without the required hire permits or third-party insurance.

That’s great. Now, where’s the crackdown on our own taxi drivers?

Even as I write this, drivers across town are breaking the law all the time with impunity, and very little to nothing is being done about it. Their rudeness has always been a problem, and it’s not a crime, but refusing a hire is, and it’s out of control.

It’s pretty obvious that most Hong Kong people have had enough. That’s why there’s been such an outpouring of public sympathy for Uber.

Just look at the statistics. Last year, the number of complaints against taxi services surged above 10,000 – the first time the figure has hit five digits since the government’s Transport Complaints Unit began keeping a tally in 2003.

Nearly 2,500 of these complaints were made against drivers refusing to pick up passengers. There were also 1,577 complaints about overcharging and 1,731 reported cases of drivers not taking the most direct route.

Don’t forget these figures reflect just the tip of the iceberg. Michael Tien Puk-sun, the lawmaker who heads the Legislative Council’s transport panel, says the real numbers must be multiple times higher.

That’s because many of us feel it’s not worth the hassle to make a formal complaint. And even when we do, the process is discouragingly tiresome and bureaucratic. How are we supposed to report an offending driver’s name or identification number displayed on the dashboard when we can’t even get into his cab to take it down?

Last month, I spent nearly an hour on the streets of Causeway Bay looking for a taxi to take me home after finishing a late night at work because of Tropical Storm Linfa. That was more than two hours after the No.8 signal had been lowered, and it wasn’t even raining any more. There was no shortage of taxis either, but the problem was an all-too-familiar one: drivers cruising around looking selectively for passengers who would go far enough to spin their meters for a good profit or agree to be taken for a price-gouging ride.

I lost count of how many taxis I hailed only for each driver to slow down, rudely refuse my request to cross the harbour to Kowloon, and speed off.

It’s often assumed that entitled, belligerent expatriates who’ve had too much to drink are to blame whenever we hear of taxi drivers being assaulted by passengers, but that night I had a bit of an epiphany about where that kind of rage comes from.

Earlier this year there was a case involving a former senior civil servant accused of assaulting a taxi driver who refused to cross the harbour from Central to Kowloon late at night. My sympathies. Police later released the irate passenger unconditionally.

Among the numerous readers who’ve written to us complaining about the behaviour of taxi drivers, one rightly pointed out that, during last month’s No.8 signal, they were giving Hong Kong a bad name by blatantly extorting money from overseas visitors at the Airport Express station in Kowloon.

The reader also drew our attention to the often-heard excuse that taxi drivers’ insurance coverage lapses during extreme weather, justifying the need to charge more for the extra risk. We checked and confirmed it’s bovine faeces: insurers don’t make exceptions for typhoons.

You only have to take a look at crowded nightlife areas like Lan Kwai Fong in Central after midnight to see lines of taxis parked illegally along the streets, displaying “out of service” signs as drivers wait for passengers to fleece. Police officers on duty often turn the other way as they openly break the law.

I sense a lot of self-righteous zeal in this ongoing crackdown on Uber, both on the part of police and the powerful taxi unions that forced them to act. But this is a grey area, and whether Uber has a legal right to operate in this town is a question no one has a ready answer for.

That’s why the government’s business promotion unit, Invest HK, was initially so enthusiastic about the launch of the service, and that’s why even now we still have people like Hong Kong’s justice minister saying there’s legal room for Uber to carry on.

What’s not a grey area is the pressing need for a matching crackdown on taxi drivers; there’s no justification for the double standards the police are adopting.

I’m not holding my breath, though. Of the more than 93,000 complaints against taxi drivers over the past 11 years, only 1.6 per cent resulted in court summonses.

By the way, I did manage to get home on the night of Linfa, thanks to one taxi driver who picked me up eventually. He was a friendly chap, clucking his disapproval when I complained about his fellow drivers.

“All of us are not like that,” he told me.

I agree.