Taxi drivers abused

By Roger Moroney

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Taxi driver Murray Johnson says every weekend he is threatened or abused by passengers. Photo/Paul Taylor
Taxi driver Murray Johnson says every weekend he is threatened or abused by passengers. Photo/Paul Taylor

Abuse, threats of violence and "runners" who decide not to pay for the job they requested are part of a normal night for Napier taxi driver Murray Johnson.

For the past five years Mr Johnson has been driving a cab and works for Baywide Taxis.

It was a job he enjoyed but he said last Saturday night's incident almost saw him "chuck it all in because it's not worth it".

Mr Johnson said he was one of many Hawke's Bay taxi drivers who went through a traditional Monday morning event - discussing what happened on the previous Friday and Saturday nights.

"It happens pretty well every weekend - it's got to the point where we call Friday night 'fight' night," he said.

Last Saturday night he was hailed by three young men who had left a work function and it was not until he got under way that he realised they had got into the wrong cab.

Their workplace had organised transport with another company.

"I said to them I can call you a taxi from the other firm - or that if they came with me they would have to pay the fare and sort it out with their employers later."

The men, who he described as "young and drunk" then began threatening him, abusing him and ordered him to take them where they wanted to go, but also made it clear they had no intention of handing any money over.

Mr Johnson said he had been caught out before, losing money by people not paying and being unable to follow the matter up, and this time he stopped the taxi.

The trio got out, threw more abuse at him and slammed his doors.

The taxi company contacted the group's employers and they would be compensating Mr Johnson.

"But it keeps happening and I think it's getting worse."

He said in the past he had been forced to fight off people.

As well, he had nearly had his taxi stolen (and broke a finger struggling to keep the would-be car thief at bay), had doors kicked in, vomit left on seats and copped "really bad abuse".

"You get treated like dirt. We are always pleasant to people but we get it again and again - every Friday and Saturday night - young people and alcohol mainly".

Mr Johnson said if anyone wondered why it was sometimes difficult to get a taxi on a weekend night it was because fewer drivers were willing to risk themselves or their cars.

Neil Thomson, who has driven for Hawke's Bay Combined Taxis for just over two years, agreed. During the late weekend hours of work, he said: "You are on edge."

While alcohol was a big factor, frequently when picking up a group of young people, one would "come on with the bravado".

Last Saturday night he had "another one" when a drunken teen started getting "lippy" to him, although the young man's girlfriend did her best to keep him quiet.

When he delivered the pair to their destination the young man staggered around to his door to take him on.

"For no reason at all ... his girlfriend ended up dragging him away."

Mr Thomson said while the majority of fare-paying customers were good there was a minority who, come the weekend, made the taxi-driving business an uneasy occupation to be in. "We have a lot of scary moments."

Last year he picked up a man who he noticed had a knife.

"I was going to stop and bail out."

Instead, he alerted the firm's dispatcher by alarm and they in turn alerted police.

Mr Thomson, worried the man would pull the knife on him while he was driving, pulled over and the man ran off.

"After 10 on a Friday or Saturday you are always on alert - you have to be aware."

Claude Thomas, who has driven taxis and now manages Baywide Taxis, said abuse, threats and running off without paying happened "every weekend" in Napier and Hastings.

"Our drivers are strapped in - they can be trapped in there and we're not kids."

Many drivers were in their 60s.

He said people who verbally or physically attacked a driver needed to realise "there will be repercussions".

Taxis were equipped with alarms to alert other drivers there was an incident. Cameras were also fitted.

The taxi industry had blacklisted a number of addresses throughout the Bay and there were certain people who would no longer be picked up because of incidents.

"But it keeps happening every weekend - we've had a gutsful of it."

New Zealand Taxi Federation executive director Roger Heale said a growing number of drivers were tiring of regular abuse and losing fares to "runners".

"It is an issue everywhere and the drivers do not need the grief."

He echoed Mr Johnson's comments about finding it tough to get taxis on Friday and Saturday nights.

"We are hearing this more and more," Mr Heale said.

"There is money to be made on those nights, but drivers are just getting fed up with the abuse and don't want to work those times."

He said that, sadly, good clients suffered.

In June last year two unrelated assaults on taxi drivers, including one involving a 15cm knife, prompted a Masterton judge to comment on the risks taxi drivers faced in the course of their work.

Judge Bill Hastings separately told two men accused of attacking drivers that assaults on cabbies were "unacceptable". He said taxi drivers put themselves at risk "every day picking up people who were often strangers to them and were entitled to an element of trust".

- Hawkes Bay Today

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