Operation Wait snares hundreds of wheelchair cabbies who stranded passengers

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Disability advocate Frank Hall-Bentick often left waiting for the taxi that just won’t come. Photo: Chris HopkinsAfter seeing a movie with friends, you call a taxi to get home.
Nanjing Night Net

It’s a short journey, just four kilometres from Cinema Nova on Lygon Street to your flat in Richmond.

You wait two-and-a-half hours before the cab comes.

An able-bodied person could have strolled home in less than half that time.

But you are not able-bodied.

You have a muscle-wasting disease that confines you to a wheelchair, and wheelchair-accessible taxis are virtually your only means of travelling around Melbourne.

This was Frank Hall-Bentick’s appalling experience, one of so many examples of unreliable service that the 63-year-old disability advocate and former public servant no longer has the confidence to use a taxi, unless a carer travels with him.

“If I can’t get a carer to go with me I don’t go out, because I am that anxious, particularly with feeling abandoned when you want to get home,” he said. “The taxi not coming and you’re by yourself. You ring ring ring ring ring – nothing on the way. It’s a very awful experience.”

Mr Hall-Bentick guesses that about one in four wheelchair-accessible taxi drivers on average provide “very good” service. So a recent crackdown on those who ignore bookings and fail to meet service standards has come as welcome news.

This year Victoria’s taxi regulator, the Taxi Services Commission, teamed up with the two dominant booking companies, 13Cabs and Silver Top, to track drivers who failed to give priority to wheelchair bookings, and hit them with $389 fines.

The sting, called Operation Wait, caught 111 drivers in its first week from April 28 to May 4, rising to 141 drivers in its second week, then fell off sharply after that as drivers became less willing to bypass a priority booking.

By the last week of June, just nine drivers were caught ignoring wheelchair passenger bookings in hope of landing bigger fares, a result the TSC attributes to word having spread that heavy penalties were being dished out.  

Photo: Jesse Marlow

“The TSC has run this operation on a number of occasions,” TSC chief executive Aaron de Rozario​ said, “and the data indicates that the operation is very effective in reducing the number of drivers offending by not prioritising WAT bookings.”

A related inspection blitz of wheelchair-accessible taxis also turned up a startlingly high number of breaches of standards: of 112 vehicles inspected, 64 required rectification and seven had defects that led to an infringement notice being issued.

Twenty-four of the inspected taxis did not even have proper wheelchair restraint systems fitted, while some drivers did not understand how to correctly fit and use the systems, nor where they could be purchased.

Mr de Rozario said this was “most definitely” a safety problem in need of urgent attention.

“Passenger and driver safety is paramount for everyone, and additional steps need to be taken to ensure wheelchairs are secured correctly,” he said.

Mr Hall-Bentick has braved this problem also, sometimes resigning to travelling in an insecure cab.

On a recent trip, a driver fumbled around for 20 minutes trying to strap him across the waist, before an exasperated Mr Hall-Bentick lost patience and told him to “just go slow and get me home”.

Details of Operation Wait were revealed in the TSC’s 2015-16 annual report, published last week.

According to the 2015-16 state budget, wheelchair passengers wait 29 minutes on average for a taxi, compared to a nine minute wait for conventional taxi passengers.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.