City council to discuss tougher fines for cowboy taxi drivers

And moving on to another example of the fine art of swindling - Prague's taxi drivers have a truly awful reputation for ripping off their customers, and the city council has, it seems, failed miserably to deal with the problem. But now their patience is running thin, and could be about to get tough. At its meeting this month, Prague's city council will discuss introducing much higher fines for taxi drivers who overcharge their clients. City councilor Rudolf Blazek says he's proposing fines of up to one million crowns - around 25,000 dollars - for overcharging, far more than the current legislation allows. Olga Szantova has the story.

It seems that the current fines are not enough to keep dishonest taxi drivers from cheating, they just about equal the amount overcharged, a risk many find worth taking, because the probability of being caught is very small. In the 21 months from January 1st 2000 to September 30th 2001, there were 78 official complaints filed by customers who had been cheated, and in 64 of these cases the fines ranged from the minute sum of 27 crowns up to a maximum of 2,285 crowns - in the vast majority of cases obviously far less than the actual amount overcharged. As a result the standing system does very little to dissuade dishonest taxi drivers from cheating. Not that all taxi drivers do cheat. Jiri Kvasnicka, founder and manager of the biggest taxi service in Prague, which operates some 780 taxis in the Czech capital, says that 90 percent of all taxi drivers are honest.

"It's a group of 500, probably even fewer taxi drivers who do really cheat, and some of their taxi ranks are very well known to the Prague local authority. One of them is in front of the main railway station. If they concentrated more on checking the drivers there, a big part of the problem would be taken care of. It's a question of priorities."

Meanwhile ingenious taxi drivers have developed a simple but effective means of producing receipts that seem to be above board, but in fact are not. The simple apparatus is called the Turbo, and consists of a hidden pedal connected to the meter which makes it run much faster than the distance covered would warrant. It's very simple and extremely hard to prove.

Mr Kvasnicka says he and some other operators have been telling the authorities about the turbo since 1992, when digital taxi meters were introduced. His company tackles the problem by telling the customer who orders a taxi by phone how much the fare to his destination will be. But turbos aren't a Czech invention, taxi drivers throughout the world know the device, only they don't use it so often, because the fines there are much higher than in the Czech Republic. So, in this sense, he says, introducing higher fines for overcharging as proposed by the Prague authorities certainly will help improve the situation, but other measures will be needed before the Czech taxi drivers' reputation improves.

Author: Olga Szantová
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