Taxi Passengers Are Being Taken for a Ride

Cab drivers frequently break the law by failing to turn on their meters or by refusing to go to requested destinations, for example, but their passengers are slow to complain to the authorities.

Just when G., a Nes Tziona resident, had a job interview on Ben Avigdor Street in Tel Aviv, her car stalled and she had to take a bus. Due to the unexpected delay, she didn't have a chance to check a map and find out exactly where the street is and that's why, when she arrived at the Tel Aviv central bus station, she opted to hail a cab so she wouldn't be late for her appointment.

The cab driver asked for NIS 30 for the trip. "I think it's pretty close by," G. said, "why don't you turn on the meter?" The driver informed her that this is the fare he charges to the desired location and he has no intention of turning on the meter. "If you want, look around and see if you can find anyone here who'll take you for a metered fare," he told her. G., who didn't want to be late, didn't argue. She got into the cab and after a short ride that lasted less than five minutes, the cab stopped on Ben Avigdor Street. G. figured that if the cabbie had used the meter, the fare would not have been more than NIS 10. She didn't think of filing a complaint against the driver.

Although the Transportation Ministry encourages cab passengers to complain about bad cab service or violations of traffic regulations, it seems that many passengers would rather keep quiet. The complaints that do reach the ministry, it emerged, are treated with the utmost seriousness: In 2001 alone, over 800 complaints were submitted against cabbies who violated various regulations, including those requiring use of a meter, obligating the cabbie to take a passenger to whatever destination he requests, and prohibiting a cabbie from taking in additional passengers without the consent of the first passenger and others (for a detailed list of the regulations, see box).

Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia says, "Today the courts tend to be strict with cabbies who break the law. Thus in February and March of this year, the Netanya Magistrate's Court fined a cabbie NIS 10,000 for not turning on the meter. Three cab drivers, who refused to take blind people accompanied by seeing-eye dogs, were fined NIS 4,000 each during that same period by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court and an Eilat cabbie who used a derogative to refer to a passenger had to pay her NIS 1,000 in compensation, as well as an additional NIS 2,000 fine.

"These rulings are an indication that the Transport Ministry and the legal system are taking the public's complaints seriously, and of the severity with which we view the affront to cab passengers," he added.

However, it seems that taking passengers' complaints seriously is not enough to cut down the frequency of bad taxi service, which is also sometimes in violation of the law. A survey conducted by Ha'aretz in conjunction with the Center for Consumer Studies, run by David Idan, found that the violations and poor service are common in every part of the country.

For the purposes of checking, a total of 58 cab rides were taken. The Center for Consumer Studies' researchers took cabs in the big cities - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and the cities of the Dan region - and checked different variables such as meter usage, driver behavior and the route of the trip.

l Meter usage: Although it is required by law, in more than 50 percent of the trips taken during the survey period (31 out of 58), the driver did not turn on the meter without asking the passenger's permission. It should be noted that on inter-city trips as well, which usually have a fixed price, a passenger may ask for the meter to be turned on. The consumer agency's study indicated that sometimes it pays for the passenger to ask that the meter be turned on for long trips as well. For example, a ride from Nahmani street in Tel Aviv to Kibbutz Shalavim, not far from the Latrun junction, which during the daytime costs NIS 125 according to the fixed price list, cost the researcher only NIS 116 on the meter. Moreover, the list of intercity fares has been cancelled and soon a new price list will be in effect and fed directly into the cab meter, the ministry said.

l Destinations: According to the law, a cabbie must take a passenger to whatever destination he may request. The survey found that outside of the central bus stations in the big cities, most cabbies systematically refuse fares that are not to their liking, either because they are too short or due to the traffic along the way. The researchers attempted to hail a cab for short, intra-city rides near the Arlosoroff and Hashalom train stations in Tel Aviv, outside the central bus stations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and at a taxi stand near the Bat Galim train station in Haifa. Out of 40 attempts to find cabs for short rides into the cities from those locations, only in six cases did cabbies agree to take the fare. Cabs hailed at random on city streets also frequently asked where the person was going before agreeing to take them.

Some researchers even reported that cabbies sent them from one to another, all the while laughing at and ridiculing the passengers. In one case, the drivers advised the researcher to walk "because it's healthier."

It should be noted that in most of these places there are designated taxi stands as well as independent cabs operating. When we approached the taxi stands, we were told that "sorting according to destination" is used only by the "grabbers," whereas at designated stands, the dispatcher sorts the fares, regardless of the destination.

The Israel Cabbies Association said it is aware of the phenomenon of "grabbers" in the areas checked, and "strongly denounces" them.

l Taking on an extra fare: Legally, while transporting a "special" fare, the driver may not take on other passengers without the agreement of the first passenger. In around 25 percent of the trips, the cabbies took on other passengers without asking the researcher.

l Driver behavior: In many cases, the researchers related, the drivers were polite and well-mannered. However, in around 25 percent of the rides, the driver smoked without asking for the passenger's permission and in 30 percent of fares, the driver responded angrily to various requests from the passengers: to turn on the air conditioner, close the window, put out the cigarette and so on. In 30 percent of the rides, the driver was speaking on a cell phone and cursed or shouted during the ride.

One researcher related: "During the ride, the driver took on another passenger without asking for my permission. When I advised the passenger who got in to ask the driver to turn on the meter, the driver responded angrily and said `You don't understand anything and don't give any advice.'"

The cab drivers association said, "The behavior of cabbies here is no different from that in other countries and yet we're still trying to improve it."

l Route: The only regulation adhered to by all the surveyed cabdrivers was the obligation to take the shortest possible route. All of the researchers, without exception, reported that the drivers chose the shortest and quickest routes to reach the desired destination.

In response to the survey, the Transport Ministry said: "The findings are serious and in effect reflect the gist of the complaints that the ministry must deal with." The spokesman also said that apart from the numerous complaints the ministry handles, its department of supervision engages in ongoing activity against cabbies who violate the law and under its auspices, reports and complaints are submitted to the court. He also notes that occasionally the ministry carries out large-scale enforcement campaigns in various locales where cabbies are known to break the law frequently, according to the ministry's data.

However, it was reported, the ministry cannot currently act against taxi stands, only against individual cabbies who violate the law. Because the taxi stands are businesses, responsibility for them lies with the local authorities that issued them a business license. "The Transportation Ministry is currently working on regulations that will also make taxi stands subject to its supervision, and not just individual drivers," the ministry said.

In addition, a joint program of the ministry and the Cab Drivers Association to institute a national service code is now under way. According to the code, every driver will be required to place his complete details as well as a picture in a prominent place in the cab and drivers will be given an identification code that will help find the cabbie in the event a complaint is filed.

Avraham Fried, the chairman of the Cab Drivers Association, said in response to the findings that "we should remember that half of the cab industry is not in any organized framework, such as taxi stands that usually adhere to strict rules with the help of disciplinary committees and fines. Our recommendation to passengers is to summon cabs from recognized stands only, in order to avoid any unnecessary anguish. In addition, the irregularities you cited are directly connected to the existing erosion of fare prices, which in most cases is below any comparative indicator in the economy, and that is the source of the `protest' phenomenon among frustrated cabbies."

Pleasing the passengers Given the increasing number of complaints received by the Ministry of Transportation, it is surprising to find that a poll conducted at the request of Ha'aretz by the Marketing Information Research Institute, which is run by Noam Raz and Meirav Shapira, showed that 71 percent of cab users expressed satisfaction with the service they received.

The survey, taken among a geographical sampling of 501 Hebrew-speaking men and women aged 18 and older, showed that three quarters of the population takes cabs with some kind of regularity. Of them, 14 percent use cabs every day or every other day. The survey also found that women and young people use cabs more frequently than other groups in the population.

Cabbies' obligations -The driver must take a passenger and his luggage to whatever destination he requests.

-For a single fare ride (called "special" in Hebrew), the driver cannot take on other passengers unless the first passenger called for this.

-For a special fare, the driver must take the shortest possible route given the time time of day and the destination.

-According to the regulations, a cabbie must turn on the meter during every ride, both inter-city and intra-city.

-The cabbie may not charge a traveling or waiting fee that is higher than the fare shown by the meter at the end of the trip.

-The starting amount on a meter anywhere in Israel, except Eilat (where the fare is without VAT), is NIS 7.70. For every fare unit traveled, the price increases 30 agorot. The additional fare for ordering a cab over the phone is NIS 2.80. When the second rate is in effect (from 12 midnight to 5:30 A.M., and on Saturdays and holidays), an additional 25 percent is added to each fare unit.

-The cabbie must install in the cab a permanent plate noting the cab license number and the cab owner's name in Hebrew and English.

-The cabbie will be polite and courteous and will act in a way that ensures the passengers will reach their destination comfortably, quickly and safely. The cabbie should have a clean and neat appearance.

-While driving, the cabbie will not talk to anyone else, unless it is necessary at the moment for him to carry out his job. While talking, he should not turn his head toward the person he is talking to.

-The cabbie must turn off the radio or lower its volume at the passenger's request.

-A passenger may change his destination in the middle of the ride.

-A cabbie may smoke in the cab only when there are no passengers in it.

In case of any complaint, such as a refusal to take a passenger, failure to use the shortest route, behavior that is inappropriate for a driver, exorbitant fares, failure to use the meter, etc., passengers are asked to submit a complaint to the Ministry of Transportation's Public Complaints Department, P.O. Box 57659, 61574 Tel Aviv. Tel: (03) 623-0349.

To facilitate handling of complaints, the Ministry of Transportation advises that all details should be clearly noted including the complainant's name, address and telephone number as well as the date of the incident, a brief description of events, the cab license number or the identity number that appears on the roof of the cab, and if possible, include the original receipt for the cab ride.