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City Hall cracks down after television report on fare-boosting device

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Prague Post on May 22, 2002.

Miloslav Novak thinks local cab drivers get a bad rap.

"We can't get customers. They re all afraid," said Novak, basking in the sunshine near his green Ford taxi, parked on Wenceslas Square.

The city's much-maligned taxi drivers have been in City Hall's cross hairs since a March 17 Czech Television (CT) report claimed that up to 80 percent of them use a fare meter-adjusting device to increase fares.

Despite denials from taxi drivers associations, the city responded to the report by pushing Parliament to increase driver fines. It has also hiked the number of inspection rides intended to root out corrupt cabbies.

The most recent Time Out guide, a popular city handbook, labeled Prague's 4,000 taxis as "ubiquitous but unreliable," adding that they were "inexpensive if you find an honest driver."

Such comments have dogged local cabbies since the tourist industry began flourishing more than a decade ago. Established radio taxi services, available through telephone calls and SMS messages have always been considered more reliable than cabs hailed on the street.

"We're all blamed as a group, even though there are good and bad individuals," said Josef, a driver who stood near Novak. "The mayor makes a big thing about it, but it's just an election ploy. We're an easy target for politicians."

But the CT report was damning. It accused drivers of using a "turbo," a matchbox-size device placed on the cables that link a car s odometer to the meter. When turned on, the device speeds up the meter.

In the first week of May, inspectors went on 12 inspection rides, compared to 33 in all of last year. Four drivers overcharged inspectors, with a fifth refusing to charge at all when he realized the identity of his riders.

According to the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, city hall has hired 10 students to pose as English-speaking tourists in an effort to nail dishonest cabbies. One has already been caught and fined 10,000 Kc ($303), the newspaper reported He also faces the loss of his taxi license.

But some drivers openly admit that they overcharge and offer explanations. "Most of my passengers are tourists," Josef said, and it's necessary for me to charge them more to earn some money."

He said he might bill a foreigner riding to the airport 50 Kc ($1.50) per kilometer instead of the legally allowed 30 Kc.The 30 Kc limit is unfair to Prague residents, said Josef, who offered personal criteria on how customers should be charged.

"If a friend of mine, someone from Prague, calls me up," Josef said, I should be able to charge him 20 crowns a kilometer." Tourists, he added, did not deserve such a discount.

Despite such logic, the cabbies interviewed for this report rejected the idea that they might have fare-hiking machinery in their cars. "I've never even heard of the device," said Ivan Filo, who s been tooling around the city in his blue Fiat for 15 years. "People are just scared [into believing such allegations] by the media."

The turbo can be used in two ways, said Jiri Kvasnicka of the Prague Association of Taxi Drivers: by adding kilometers to the trip or lowering the total kilometer tally, cutting the amount a driver owes his company. He added that he was "99 percent" sure most drivers in the association did not use illegal devices.

Eva Miklikova, spokeswoman for the Prague police department, said that installing the device was easy but that city police had never actually caught a driver using one.Since the device is hard to find, drivers say inspectors are not the answer.

Instead, most drivers would like to determine rates for each trip ahead of time, effectively ending any reliance on meters or by-the-kilometer charges. "There should be no bills, no meters," Filo said. "I would tell the tourist that a trip would cost a certain amount, and they would just pay that."

Filo labeled recent legislation calling for a 1 million Kc fine for chronic cheaters as unrealistic. "Nobody can afford to pay a million crowns," Filo said. "We don't earn that much money. I might earn that much money in my whole life."

Miloslava Fleglova, spokesperson for the Trade Inspection office, agreed. "I'm not sure whether increased fines deter crooks," she said. "Revoking licenses and bans ... would be more effective."

A block from where the cab drivers were parked, Bozena Michalkova, who works at the Tourism Services office, a ticket-selling outlet, offered simpler advice: "I just tell people not to use them at all."

Michalkova recalls being told a ride would cost 200 Kc but being asked to pay 400 Kc at the destination. "If people do have to take a cab, I tell them to ask first how much it will be and not pay more than that," she said, "but I think it s better to ... use public transportation."

- Jiri Marecek and Katerina Svobodova contributed to this report.



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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