Sunday, June 15, 2008

Slower, cabbie! I’m in no hurry, so why are you?

These are three incidents I’ve witnessed when I have been in, or close to, a taxi this year so far. I’m going to tell them in the order of dramatic ascendancy.
Story Number 1:
It’s Tuesday night, it’s almost midnight and I’m driving down the highway at the maximum legal speed – just below 120km/hour – in the fast lane. A taxi appears behind me but I pay little attention to it. A minute later I realise that it’s closing in on me and has left not much more than a metre between us.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous. I slow down a little to make him back up but the taxi driver gets even more frustrated and starts flashing me continuously with his high beam light. I’m shocked and I think to myself:
“This is the first time I’ve been flashed by a cab.” There is something just not right about being flashed by a cab when you are driving at the maximum legal speed on the highway. Meanwhile, the cabbie is getting really annoyed with my lack of response and switches two lanes down, passes me quickly and gets back onto his coveted fast lane and speeds away. I take note of his number and later report him.

Story Number 2:
I hail a cab with a couple of friends and sit in the front seat. I put on my seat belt and notice that the driver has not actually buckled his seat belt but just placed it across his lap. I ask him why he won’t put it on properly and he says that it’s only for the police and there are no police in this area at this time. I told him it’s for his safety and he chuckles at me like I’m a novice passenger at a drag race. Three minutes later, we are speeding through a red light that he tried to catch on yellow and failed. Needless to say, we were flashed.

Story Number 3:
Again, I hail a cab with a couple of friends and I sit in the front seat. So far so good, and he’s driving really well until another taxi overtakes him aggressively on a neighbourhood road. But now this is no longer a neighbourhood road, this is Talladega Nights. The driver speeds up but is unable to overtake on the one-lane road we are on. Does he give up the chase? Oh no, he overtakes the other taxi in the middle of a roundabout and almost crashes into a tree. We tell him to stop the cab and get out. I take a good look at the number and report him.

This kind of behaviour is really dangerous but it is also sad. I am sure that the companies that bring these men over here test their ability to drive – in the end they do hold UAE driving licences – but do they test their ability to drive well? Do they make sure that they understand – and follow – road etiquette? Do they ensure that they obey the driving rules and regulations set by the police and transport authorities? I doubt that they do.

These stories are not unique to me; many of you reading this now will be remembering your own bad experiences. Indeed, many of us don’t take cabs any more because they are just not safe. We should be able to take cabs and feel safe in them; it is a prerequisite for any type of transport.
One can only imagine how many tourists must have had similarly bad experiences while visiting the UAE. And yes, this issue does extend beyond a bad cab journey or two; this is about a basic expectation in a civil society. These drivers are breaking the law day in and day out.
The business model of the taxi service in the UAE is flawed; cab drivers work very long hours and must take as many fares as possible to earn a living. This is one of the main reasons why they are so hostile on the road, which in turn makes the roads dangerous – a vicious cycle with emphasis on the “vicious”. It may be wise to take another look at the policies and regulations governing cab drivers.
But we are all to blame: the passengers for the times we did not report bad driving; the companies that hired the drivers for not spending time and money on training them properly, and also for not following up on complaints made by passengers; the police for not applying tougher fines on drivers committing offences such as driving through red lights, excessive speeding, erratic driving, switching lanes, etc.
The police are also to blame for not requiring cab drivers to take more specific tests and checking that they do drive well, not just drive.
In London, cab drivers must take a very exacting series of tests to get a taxi driving licence. One of the most difficult aspects – and often the decisive factor – is what is referred to as “The Knowledge”.
That simply means knowing all the roads and principal buildings in central London. I wonder how many of our cab drivers have anything close to The Knowledge? We should institute a similar kind of test here. The amount of times you get into a cab, tell the driver the name of a multibillion dirham monument and still get a blank look are endless. This is unacceptable.

By Mishaal Al Gergawi

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