Overworked and under threat: life behind the wheel

TAXI driver Praboj Rhani heard the racist insult on a Saturday night, about the same time his shoulders became footrests for one of the three young men in the back seat.

Mr Rhani had collected his passengers in King Street just before midnight, about the time pubs and nightclubs start disgorging the first of their well-tanked clientele. "Drive us to Sunshine West, brown c---," he was instructed.

As the invective flowed, Mr Rhani, from Rawalpindi in Pakistan's west, knew he'd be doing no such thing, and pulled over. His firm "Please leave my cab" was met with "Make us, c---".

He got out and was met on the pavement by a young policeman, who asked him what the problem was. "My passengers are abusing me, sir, and I don't want to carry them. This is a dangerous thing, I don't want to be involved with them."

Mr Rhani said his entreaties and the policeman's command to "get back in and drive the cab, you're a taxi driver, take them to where they want to go" became repetitive. Finally, the policeman became impatient and said: "Get back in the cab and drive the f---ing thing."

By then the passengers had left. Mr Rhani drove off and, badly shaken, cut his shift several hours short of the 12 hours routinely worked by student drivers.

Taxi driving is a hazardous business. For the first few weeks of taking a taxi home, which I've done for the past 55 Saturday nights, I've heard the same story. One of being bashed, threatened or sitting helplessly as passengers do "a runner".

The six companies that dish out jobs, to 11,800 drivers in Melbourne are not forthcoming with official assault/injury figures. The Transport Accident Commission said to check with WorkCover, which recommended contacting Victoria Police. But the police can't help with records specific to the taxi industry.

Arun Badgujar, president of the Victorian Taxi Drivers Association, insists that five of the state's cabbies are assaulted, on average, every day.

Fewer than 5% of owners of regular (non-silver service) cabs drive on Friday, and especially Saturday, nights. Instead, they hand over to young drivers, many of whom struggle with English and the Melways, and rub up against alcohol-fuelled passengers.

Ultimately, a driver can reject any fare on the grounds of perceived danger, or projected non-payment. Mr Badgujar is angered that last November one of the biggest companies added to the difficulty of rejecting an assigned fare by extending from one hour to two hours a subsequent "ban" on receiving further radioed fares from headquarters.

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