Ireland's new taxi regulator may herald an all-yellow cab fleet, while a
year-long crackdown in Northern Ireland nets hundreds.
All taxis in Ireland should be New York-yellow and have talking meters within three years according to a strategy document compiled by an alliance of six disability groups. The study also called for one in five of all taxis to be wheelchair accessible, with concessions available for disabled users.
The study also noted that the percentage of accessible taxis had halved since numbers were deregulated four years ago, and said that a central GPS booking system for all taxi companies was needed to combat the unwillingness of some drivers to service the disabled community, with sanctions available for non-compliance.
A colour code was part of the original remit for Ireland's taxi regulator, and yellow is the the colour most easily recognised by the visually impaired. Welcoming the document 'Towards an Accessible Taxi Service for All', Transport Minister Seamus Brennan said: "I've always been a strong supporter of a single colour nationally. If I needed another reason I've got it today. They recommend a bright yellow. I think that's a really good idea."
But Vinny Kearns, vice-president of the National Taxi Drivers' Union, claimed that the writers of the report had not consulted the industry, and he predicted that it would 'gather dust' and not be implemented.
Mr Kearns said that the issue was close to his heart since he had had problems with his father, and said that he had called on the Irish Wheelchair Association to train taxi drivers in 1991 when wheelchair accessible licenses were first issued, but this had never happened.
He also said that it would cost each owner 5,000 euros to have their cars resprayed, and doubted that funds would be available to implement the report and sufficiently subsidise those dependent on taxis.
But Mr Brennan said that finance would be made available, and he added that the document was 'the most exciting report' he had seen regarding accessible taxis. He also said that the views of the trade would be taken into account, but could not be a 'blockage'.
Green party spokesman Eamon Ryan claimed that the report lacked ambition in relation to the proportion of accessible taxis, and called on disability groups to be more ambitious.
Meanwhile, Mr Gerard Deering, a departmental director with Carlow County Council, has been appointed Ireland's new national taxi regulator, and will take office in September.
Transport Minister Brennan said that Mr Deering would be armed with the Act and the National Taxi Council chaired by a former Garda Commissioner.
Among Mr Deering's responsibilities will be the setting of standards for vehicles and drivers, including age, size and a national uniform colour for taxis, and a high standard of knowledge and a dress code for drivers.
Mr Brennan said that he wanted to encourage a 'cab culture' that existed in cities like London and New York, and wanted to see the day when everyone could walk onto the street and hail a taxi.
Mr Brennan also announced that individuals with criminal records would be not be allowed to drive taxis, and he hoped the ban would be in place by the time his ministerial powers were transferred to Mr Deering.
But the NTDU's Mr Kearns said that it would be unfair to retrospectively ban drivers with past convictions, although he welcomed the move to prevent unsuitable new drivers from entering the trade.
He claimed that some drivers had convictions for IRA membership and illegal possession of guns, and he argued that to ban these drivers would be contrary to the Belfast Agreement. He also said that he knew drivers with 30-year-old assault convictions who had been told that their licenses would not be renewed under the proposed legislation.
But the Department of Transport said that the delay surrounding the passing of the new legislation was to prevent this situation arising. It said that those currently refused a license could apply to the courts on the basis that they had repaid their debt to society, and this provision will be included in the new Act.
It is hoped that the new taxi regulator will tackle a environment of ever increasing complaints against taxi drivers.
An informal Irish Times survey revealed a litany of complaints against the trade. One woman complained that she recently got into a cab where the driver was steering with one hand and eating a kebab with the other. Another said that on asking for her change the driver 'roared abuse and threatened me'.
Others complained of smoking drivers or a smell of smoke in the car, with complaints met with intimidation.
Another complained of a 'clapped out, smelly taxi' driven at high speed by a driver who claimed that he couldn't drop below third gear. At the end of the journey a complaint made the driver abusive, and he shouted 'I know where you live'.
Overcharging tops the list of complaints, despite he introduction of electronic receipt machines, with many drivers simply not issuing them.
NORTHERN IRELAND CRACKDOWN
Meanwhile, a year-long operation including the checking of 3,400 taxis has uncovered hundreds of illegal taxis in Northern Ireland.
A five-strong Taxi Enforcement Team was set up by the Driver & Vehicle Testing Agency to tackle a problem that officials described as having reached an 'epidemic level'. The move was funded by an additional £20 levy on legitimate drivers.
The probe led to:
- 372 reported for prosecution for operating illegally;
- 252 unlicensed drivers uncovered;
- 344 uninsured taxis;
- 163 siezures of radio equipment on evidential grounds.
One driver plead guilty to three separate offences including operating without a taxi driver's license or insurance.
Gerard McKenna of Belfast was spotted in his Vauxhall Astra and a concealed two-way radio was found.
He was fined £1,500 and given a two-year driving ban at Belfast Magistrates Court.
Team member Stephen Spratt said that hundreds of other prosecutions would follow but he added that many offenders used their radios to warn each other about enforcement operations.
But he urged the public not to used unlicensed operators as many had criminal records or suffered ill health.