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Illegal taxis keep on rolling despite penalties

Updated: 2012-10-09 00:26
By Zheng Xin ( China Daily)

Many vehicles are 'recycled' from scrap yards, according to insiders

Despite government crackdowns and rigorous penalties for rogue cabs, industry insiders say the illegal vehicles are still thriving in Beijing.

Thanks to the quick money earned through the illicit business, which is easy to start, an increasing number of drivers are eyeing the market, experts say.

Illegal taxis keep on rolling despite penalties

The wreckage of an illicit taxi is put on display on the Beijing North Railway Station's square in December 2011. The vehicle was damaged in a traffic accident. Authorities are reminding residents they should avoid hiring illegal taxis. Provided to China Daily

"All you need is a vehicle and you’re in business," said Yi Shenghua, an attorney at Yingke Law Firm. "It's an easy crime to get away with."

At taxi stands at airports, railway stations, hotels, tourist attractions and shopping areas, illegal taxis are scooping up passengers.

Easy money

Despite many illegal cabs looking like regular taxis, sometimes with the logo of a real taxi firm on the door and a light box on its roof, many vehicles are actually illegally "recycled" from scrap yards, according to insiders.

Taxis in the capital should be scrapped after running on the roads for eight years, according to safety regulations.

A worker surnamed Ren at a scrap company in Beijing's Fengtai district said the average price his company spends to buy an old taxi from taxi companies is 600 yuan ($90).

He said the company does not resell scrapped taxis, nor has he heard of it happening.

Ren said his company has strict procedures. However, an insider said many cars sent to scrap yards are escaping dismantling and are arriving on the roads again.

Illegal taxis keep on rolling despite penalties

The driver of an illegal taxi sits on a wall to attract customers, while a tourist climbs a ladder to take the illegal taxi waiting on the other side of the wall near the Xianglu Peak in Xiangshan Mountain Forest Park in Beijing in October 2011. After reaching the peak by foot, some tired tourists returned downhill via illicit taxis. Provided to China Daily 

According to the insider, who used to work at a scrap yard in the suburbs of Beijing but did not want to be named, a used taxi can fetch up to 20,000 yuan, which includes the cost of the expired license plate.

"This is pretty quick money for them as they don’t have to pay monthly rent to a taxi company," said Wan Weidong, a veteran Beijing cabbie. "In three months they can earn back the cost of the taxi and stay rent-free forever.

"You can’t afford any traffic accidents as a taxi driver because the rent is already too high. One rear-end accident, and that's a month's salary gone."

Compared with illicit cabbies, regular taxi drivers have a harder time making money, he said.

Thanks to the easy money and small risk, many are joining the emerging industry through the introduction of friends.

"Only bold drivers would give it a try in the past, but now more are giving the illicit business a go," he said.

Taken for a ride

In addition to quick money, with a fake license plate, a taxi company name and even receipts, rogue taxis can easily get away from the restraints of supervision.

They even get receipts from illegal channels, and it's difficult for a passenger to notice it's illegal.

"Regular taxi drivers can get some five or six rolls of receipt paper a month, 100 pages a roll," Wan said. "They can have those they don’t need sold to the underground cabbies and get the stub back, and no one will notice.

"Many of them just go on a long detour and charge you more, while some play tricks with the taxi meter," he added.

A 26-year-old Frenchman who arrived in Beijing for the first time on Sept 16 for a business trip shared his story online about how he was shocked by the expensive taxi charge in the capital.

A Hyundai with a taxi roof light pulled into Beijing Capital International Airport, and the driver beckoned him inside. He was charged 451 yuan for a 40-minute journey that the meter showed had covered 153 kilometers.

"It's the first time I am that much overcharged," the Frenchman, who gave his name only as Julien, said in an interview over Sina Weibo.

"I didn’t have a similar experience abroad and I didn’t complain to officials. We just contacted the taxi company that said that nothing can be done as the receipt had probably been stolen."

According to a Xinhua News Agency report, the receipts of Jinshishun Taxi Co — the name printed on the receipt — might be in the hands of the illegal cabbies through drivers of the company.

In response to the Frenchman's bitter experience, many people also suspect the taxi dispatcher was involved with the deal.

"It's no big surprise that people team up with each other for profits," said Wan.

The Hyundai is among what lawyer Yi estimated are thousands of illegal cabs roaming the capital, at places that see many foreigners and people from other provinces with a poor sense of direction, who are easily hooked by bandit taxis.

"They are not only putting the safety of the passengers as well as themselves at risk, but also ruining the reputation of the taxi industry," Wan said. "There have been numerous complaints and criticisms targeting the taxi drivers for overcharging or bad attitudes, and we feel so wronged."

They are doing more than taking business, he said.

According to lawyer Yi Shenghua, in addition to the shame they bring to the reputation of the legal taxi drivers in the city, the rogue taxis also pose safety threats for passengers as most of the vehicles were to be scrapped.

"The illegal operation should be brought under traffic management regulations and those for industry and commerce," he said. "If any traffic accident happens and injures a passenger, the bandit taxi driver should be punished for endangering public safety."

He said despite the illicit business continuing to thrive, few cases have been reported or punished.

The bandit cabs can be handed a fine up to 20,000 yuan in the capital. The punishment is severe but the illegal deals are still blooming.

The key to solving the problem lies not in severe punishment but stricter inspection and supervision, Yi added.

Beijing Municipal Traffic Management Bureau could not be reached for comment on Monday.

However, the capital's tourism development commission has come up with more staff to supervise the rampant illegal taxis at railway stations, especially during holidays.

"As we don’t have the right to punish them but only to warn them, the illicit cabbies just go search for passengers elsewhere," said Song Jun, a spokesman for the commission.

Illegal taxis are not only limited to China and it takes time to solve the problem, he said.

Beijing Capital International Airport has a similar problem.

According to an employee who gave his name only as Li at the airport's taxi dispatch station, they have no right to deny entrance to any taxi, real or fake.

Secret sorrow

However, Wan said the illicit cabbies, despite all the complaints and abuses flung against them, should not take full blame.

According to the insider at the scrap company, many cab drivers have devoted themselves to the newly emerging industry after working for years.

The taxi driver has to pay about 5,000 yuan to a taxi company each month.

Total monthly costs can be as much as 10,000 yuan, including gasoline and insurance, Wan said.

"You wake up at the beginning of each month and find yourself in debt and have to sweat your guts out to pay 10,000 yuan and feed your family, which is pretty intense," he said.

Liu Ziwei, a 26-year-old Beijing resident, said despite the intense antipathy against the underground cab drivers, she found them a little bit wronged.

"I took an illegal taxi before and I could tell it was illegal as the driver was carrying an obvious Henan accent while all taxi drivers in the capital should be local," she said. "But since he did not overcharge me or take me on a long detour, I didn’t report him to police.

"I’m already grateful he could give me a ride after I spent so long waiting for a cab, and I understand the difficulty of being a taxi driver."

Liu said it might help if the taxi companies cut the rent and government comes up with subsidies for the taxi industry.

"It's unfair they take all the blame," she said.