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Coddington’s Liberty Belle

Coddington’s Liberty Belle

How is it that nearly everyone you speak to these days has their own taxi horror story? Everyone except, it seems, the present and past Ministers of Transport who appeared at the Taxi Federation's annual conference this year and said there can't be a problem otherwise their in-trays would be filled with complaints.

When was the last time these guys caught a taxi? That is, a taxi not assigned to them by Ministerial Services or one of the elite companies only taxpayer-funded MPs can afford to hire?

In fact you don't even have to hire a cab to get a fright. About two months ago I was walking home alone to my Wellington flat at about 11pm after the House had adjourned. I was walking purposefully, talking into my cell phone and, I would have thought, obviously not needing a taxi. Travelling the other way down Lambton Quay was a rumpty looking cab. He slowed. He u-turned. He kerb-crawled beside me. He persisted when I motioned him to drive on. After about two minutes of being pestered I ended my phone call and in most unladylike language told him where to go.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not advocating a return to the days of heavy regulation, when you came out of a restaurant or movie at 11pm and there were no cabs to be seen. When you had to take the first cab on the rank. When you weren't allowed to hail a passing cab, and emulate all those sophisticated looking types in New York who only had to whistle and a big yellow taxi would materialise to speed them away to a loft in SoHo.

But the situation today is badly in need of a shake-up. The Land Transport Safety Authority clearly cannot cope. The Director is responsible for vetting taxi licences and taxi companies - both new and existing. This used to be the local council's job, thus the onus was on the council or local authority to protect their particular region's good reputation for transport.

But now it's all centralised. Wellington is in charge of the rest of the country and, as Bob Jones said recently, when you come out of Auckland airport you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd arrived in Delhi or Bombay. And before I'm accused of racism, I don't notice - nor do I care - about the ethnicity or skin colour of a taxi driver. I do care, however, if he or she can't understand or speak basic English.

Taxpayers have helped immigrants into taxi driving, through Winz grants. It's not a huge amount - answers to my parliamentary questions last year showed that in 2000 and 2001 Winz gave out $18,702 to 28 new immigrants who wanted to be taxi drivers. Of this sum, $13,390 came out of the Papatoetoe Winz office. It would be interesting to know how many of those 28 immigrants are still driving cabs.

The Land Transport Amendment Bill which is currently before select committee will not clean out the industry, as the Minister asserts. Taxi drivers already in the industry who have criminal convictions will not automatically be disqualified from driving a cab. The Director of the LTSA will only be required to take into account anything which may prejudice their being a fit and proper person to hold a passenger service licence. If this consideration is as rigorous as the parole board's when it comes to assessing risk, then we can assume that anything goes and all may pass.

I think that anyone who has convictions for offences of a sexual, violent, or dishonest nature should be automatically disqualified. Outski. Gone by lunchtime. We need to get back to the times when we could trust taxi drivers and they could trust us (unlike the Palmerston North cabbies who, we are told, are terrified of drunken women who lay false complaints of sexual assault).

This doesn't mean re-regulation. It means toughening up the laws a little, then enforcing them rigorously. It means putting companies through stringent tests to ensure only licensed drivers are carrying passengers - not any Tom, Dick or Mustapha who happens to be a friend of the licensee.

Remember the Holmes television programme where they wired the reporter in a cab? He nearly had kittens when the taxi driver went the wrong way down a one-way street, the wrong way around a roundabout, and some hours later finally reached his destination in the Auckland suburbs, a ride that should have taken about 45 minutes. The driver even got the reporter to read the map for him because he couldn't read English!

This is a disgrace. New Zealand deserves better than this. Our cities and towns - in general - are beaut places both for us, and for tourists. They should also be happy work places for those honest, trustworthy taxi drivers who, like me, have had a gutsful of the sleazebags trashing the industry.

*This will be my last regular Liberty Belle for a while. I've been bought by the new "Herald on Sunday" which is launched next Sunday, October 3. I'll be the 'right wing' columnist and my old mate, the gorgeous-looking Matt McCarten will be the leftie. I can't manage two columns every week, so I'll have to think about what I do with Friday's Liberty Belle. Don't worry, for those who want to continue hearing from me, I will think of something. Meanwhile, read the "Herald on Sunday".

Yours in Liberty, Deborah Coddington

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