The meter is ticking

The meter is ticking

For some three years running, the Ministry of Transport has used a stick against recalcitrant and surly Bangkok taxi drivers. Now, the minister himself is on the verge of switching tactics and wants to try using the carrot. Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith thinks a relatively small raise in fares might also raise smiles and turn the dark mood of drivers sunny. This seems unlikely.

Mr Arkhom said early this month he intends to recruit experts within the Ministry of Transport to study the issue. That is the right decision, although it might have been more useful to conduct the study before announcing that he personally favours a fare hike. The minister's proposal is for a somewhat modest 8% rise in fares when cabs get stuck in traffic. He intends to leave the starting fare of 35 baht unchanged.

Whatever he now decides Mr Arkhom faces credible charges of unfairness. Beginning three years ago this month, the government stated it would not raise taxi fares until drivers' attitudes changed, particularly the refusal of many drivers to take riders to addresses they considered inconvenient. The new policy favours hiking fares in the hope that drivers will respond with better service.

The problem is that in either case, government is making all drivers responsible for what is a minority of drivers who refuse to provide the expected service. Keeping fares at current levels provides no incentive for any driver to improve his service or attitude. But raising fares also will not help solve the basic problems such as refusing customers, driving dangerously, fiddling with meters and all the myriad ways that riders are cheated.

It must also be mentioned importantly that while many people think only of Bangkok taxis when the subject emerges, upcountry taxis provide, on average, far less service than their Bangkok counterparts. Especially in popular tourist destinations, a clear majority of drivers refuse even to consider abiding by the metered price. Multiple cases of actual violence have been reported by taxi drivers against Grab and similar services. In some places the phrase "taxi mafia" is no light-hearted description.

One of the ministry's lesser-known goals is to bring taxis under its Taxi OK programme. This project aims to improve the quality of the taxicabs, and the service provided by drivers. It mandates above-minimum road tests for the cars' roadworthiness and safety measures. It provides tests and training to improve driver knowledge and encourage good service. The reward is certification by the ministry.

Mr Arkhom said he is leaning towards a recommendation to the cabinet that fare increases be awarded only to drivers and taxicabs certified by the Taxi OK programme. As of Nov 1, only about 13,000 of the 80,647 taxis registered nationwide had been certified as passing the additional tests. From the consumer standpoint, rewarding the 16% of taxis willing to be put to the certification test is probably the fairest way of all to authorise a fare hike.

There is some sentiment on the subject that taxi driver deserve a fare raise because they "need" to keep up with the cost of living. There is some truth in this, but only some. Prices set by fiat and enforced by law often are unfair. The 35-baht flag drop has been the rule for many years, while other transportation costs -- from buses to the BTS -- have risen one or several times.

Government's claim that it is keeping taxi fares fixed in order to change driver behaviour can only stretch so far. Most taxi drivers are honest men and women, who work hard in terrible traffic conditions. Mr Arkhom is on the right track in favouring a rise in drivers' income. He must consult the taxi riders on the issue. If he fails to encourage discussion by the public, there's a strong chance he will get the fair-rise decision wrong.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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