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Watch out – taxi!

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Watch out whose taxi you are boarding. (ČTK)Watch out whose taxi you are boarding. (ČTK)

“He must be a mafioso, he’s completely like some taxi driver from Prague,” a grandma whispers in her grandson’s ear about a driver, who has just brought her home. Awful reputation of Prague taxi drivers has permeated not only to guidebooks, but also to the popular American comedy-drama series Gilmore Girls. What’s more incredible is that a city of one million is jerked around by a handful of about sixty indecent drivers, while there are no problems with about 4,000 of their decent colleagues.

Prague’s deputy mayor Rudolf Blažek, however, reminded of the city’s helplessness two days ago: He asked the trade union’s headquarters for help in fighting taxi drivers who overcharge, terrorise their competition and attack customers. The idea that the ongoing war will be over after the trade unionists intercede might raise smiles. Other measures implemented by the city hall, however, indicate that something is really happening on the streets. The question remains, why now and not earlier?

It’s not working

Mr. K. is calm by nature. Nevertheless, when he is to talk about what he went through as a taxi driver this summer at a taxi spot in Prague’s city centre, he becomes nervous and wants to remain anonymous. He was sitting in his taxi at a taxi spot near Old Town Square and rolled down his car window in the July heat. As usual, taxi drivers from the notorious rival Prague taxi service Euro Taxi began taking away his customers and called him names so that he would “get out.” When he did not react, one of the Euro Taxi drivers came to his window and spat in his face. Mr. K. got out of the car, went to the car’s boot with pretended calmness to get a towel and wipe off his face. “Suddenly, the man caught my legs from behind, put me in the boot and closed it.” Fortunately, his colleagues standing nearby saw the attack and pulled Mr. K. out of the boot in a few minutes. But that was the end of it; he did not file a complaint for fear of revenge.

Cab drivers from Euro Taxi really have a bad name. The town council says on its website that the firm’s taxi drivers even rob and spit at Hilton hotel guests. All that despite the fact that several years ago, regulations came into effect that should prevent this. Reliable companies (AAA taxi, Profi Taxi, City taxi) drew lots for lucrative taxi spots in the city centre, for which they now pay and have to keep the regulated price of CZK 28 per kilometre. However, the problematic group forces these companies out of taxi spots and charges its clients around CZK 100 per kilometer. City police ask them to leave, but when they fail to do so, the law only enables the police to fine them. And the police is not bending over backwards to resolve the situation: The men in uniform are often on friendly terms with the problematic taxi drivers and invite each other for coffee.

The town council with a billion-crown budget and an army of officers and lawyers has been unable to deal with several well-organized cab drivers for almost twenty years. “I’m really disappointed with myself and others that some sixty people spoil the reputation of our taxi services and our town,” Deputy Mayor Blažek, who is responsible for taxi services, says, banging on the table. “But we did all we could.”

The pile of documents from legal and administrative proceedings sketch out the dramatic performance of the Deputy Mayor Blažek. The city has taken away 106 driving licenses and levied fines worth CZK 100 million in the past six years. It filed 12 complaints for illegal enterprise, but the public prosecutor always pulled them off the table, as no crime was allegedly committed. The town council also twice unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the road bill in the lower house, which would extend its powers. It cancelled a contract with a company for a taxi spot near Old Town Square for overcharging, but the court proceedings have been dragging for four years. “I talked to the chair of the court, if the proceedings could be speeded up, but she said they do not have enough staff,” Blažek says.

Keep the pressure

There was no result. The drivers in question operate without a license under the Euro Taxi operator, and they don’t pay fines. Why doesn’t the city send debt collectors to seize their property if it can move out tenants who fail to pay rent in municipal houses, kick out homeless outside the city centre or pull out cars that have parked in the wrong place? “They transfer their property to their wives,” says Jan Heroudek, head of the city’s transportation office. “A debt collector can seize flat inventory of a debtor even if the owner is his wife,” says Prague lawyer Oldřich Choděra. “The city has more options but has taken a slow approach.”

City officials are facing a tricky opponent. The group consists of several ex-cops, and the gang hires an experienced lawyer, Kolja Kubíček, who is good at delaying lawsuits.

Deputy Mayor Blažek is promising a remedy. He is sure it will work this time. City Hall wants to target the way of collecting fines, it is seeking abolishing the license for Euro Taxi in administrative proceedings and it considers sending a financial inspection to look into the operator’s books.

But it looks like real changes are to come from somewhere else. Prague police chief Martin Červíček, who was appointed in early November, seems to know how to tackle the problem. Three weeks ago, the state police intervened against a driver who was using a taxi spot in breach of rules. After he refused to leave when asked repeatedly, the police pulled him out of the car and took him away in handcuffs. The empty car was pulled off by city police right after that. Euro Taxi drivers have been cautious about police checks ever since.

Rudolf Blažek takes a look outside his office to see the taxi spot on Old Town Square. “They have come again,” he says pointing at the vanilla-coloured Euro Taxi Mercedes, which has parked at the spot reserved for AAA Taxi. Then he calls somebody and in a minute, a police car is approaching the spot and the Mercedes is leaving. “We’re going to crack down on them until they don’t go and do something else,” says Blažek.

The plan looks promising, but on must be sceptical and watch closely how long this commitment will last.

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.

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