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Published 15 February 2013 08:26, Updated 18 February 2013 07:20
Taxi council of Queensland CEO Benjamin Wash says industry rules ensure service and pricing are fair. Photo: Supplied
Australia has a tightly regulated taxi industry that offers a high degree of protection to both industry participants and the millions of satisfied customers who use taxis each day across the country.
Taxi booking companies ensure that all areas are serviced and that drivers have appropriate training and undergo background checks. In some states – like Queensland – the booking companies have a service agreement with the state government obligating them to meet minimum service standards.
Because prices are set by the government regulators, customers know the fare they will be charged.
In a less regulated industry, taxi operators would naturally focus on the geographical areas that offer them the most supply, meaning there would be many suburbs within all of the major cities and regions where you could never get a taxi.
It would also mean that while drivers might compete for fares at times of low demand, in times of high usage – like peak hours and during major events – taxi fares would soar, effectively giving access only to the highest bidders.
This would be an unacceptable situation, especially as for many people – including the disabled, elderly, tourists and shift workers – taxis are the only transport option.
Recently we have seen much public debate about independent smartphone taxi booking apps like Gocatch and Ingogo and private car companies like Uber. The taxi industry has been incorrectly portrayed as opposing these apps to somehow protect its market share.
This is a myth perpetrated by app companies. The industry welcomes booking apps and any other innovations that improve customer service. However we want them to operate within the regulations and not outside the guidelines that provide such widespread industry and consumer protection.
It’s not too much to ask. Regulations exist across many industries for a reason. There are regulations for air travel that protect both the airlines and the travelling public. I cannot start my own bus service and pick up school children without meeting proper guidelines.
Yet independent taxi apps and hire cars refuse to operate within the taxi industry regulations, in effect creating a deregulated market by stealth. They take no responsibility for a car that doesn’t turn up; they don’t spend money branding their cars, training drivers and ensuring that each driver meets background criteria. Their only motive is to make money and leave booking companies to clean up their mess when they fail customers.
Of great concern is the complete lack of any safety net when booking through one of these apps. Anyone can register as a driver and accept a fare with GoCatch (they try to deny this). Because they do not have access to booking company records they have no way to verify whether the driver they are sending is an authorised driver.
I know of several people who don’t even have a taxi yet have registered as a driver with a fake name and non-existent driver number. They are willingly accepted by Gocatch and offered fares from unsuspecting – and vulnerable - customers.
It is foolish to believe that those with evil intent will not take advantage of this. We have seen incidents overseas of people posing as taxi drivers and picking up and sexually assaulting intoxicated women.
It’s not only safety at risk if regulations are watered down. In the USA on New Year’s Eve, Uber hire cars – which now operate in Australia, charged a customer over $280 for a fare that would usually cost around $45 in a taxi. They justified it by saying it was a time of high demand and called it “surge pricing”. Left unchecked, this will happen here.
This is the story that has not been told. For the sake of profit (with no investment or responsibility), the app companies want to smash the regulations that protect both consumers and the many small business people involved in the industry. The public and media have been fooled.
When these apps become taxi booking companies and play by the same rules – the rules that guarantee public safety, service and prices - the industry will support them without reservation.
Benjamin Wash is CEO of Taxi Council Queensland.