Lifestyle

What’s the story behind the wheel?

By Medha de Alwis

“I’ll just get a cab” is a phrase we use or hear every day. Gone are the days when commuting was an issue. Those were the days when, unless you had your own vehicle, you would more often than not be stranded, but times have changed. The number of professionals behind the wheel is decreasing by the day, while the number of older people getting about on their own has increased. Insurance companies are being asked whether there is daily insurance available. Those who avoided venturing about in the deadly “odd” hours are happily on the go now; all thanks to the competitively affordable taxi services.

Speaking to regular riders, it was found that their experiences were super positive and five-star in 99% of the cases..

Success stories

Varsha* is a house officer at the Batticaloa General Hospital and commutes to her hometown, Colombo, in the overnight express bus which reaches Colombo around 4 a.m. “I take this trip only because I have instant access to Uber or PickMe rides, which I prebook. I share my travel status with my mother, and I even catch a little sleep, with the assurance that I am safely on my way home. Most of the drivers help with the luggage, and even offer to wait a bit till my night bus comes,” smiles Varsha.

How does one get behind the wheel?

We do not wish to break your bubble, but ponder on whether taxi apps are as safe as you think. A driver from a local taxi app whose taxi we took last night told us that he was recruited while he was on another hire. A few youngsters had given him some promotional material, taken copies of all his relevant driving documents, and before he knew it, he was in. We have spoken to dozens of drivers from various online apps, and the stories are not very different from one another.

Is it safe?

Although there is the impression that mobile app drivers are safe, there is no such total guarantee. When we called the respective call centres, we were repeatedly assured that the drivers had gone through meticulous, detailed training, but none of the drivers said they received any. Leave alone training, they said they hardly set foot in the company’s permises.

Identity checked?

Yes, there is a possibility that the driver could be traced if a crime is committed, but it could prove difficult if the diver has forged his identity douments. Besides, even if you have the real name of the driver, what is the assurance that the person could be traced? There is no system to trace a person with just their name if they have changed the address stated in their identity card.

Enticing commission

Out of the hire fare, a commission is to be paid to the company, which ranges from a reasonable 5% to a staggering 25%. In addition to that, some companies have a system where a commission is paid to the driver if a certain number of hires are achieved. “It is here we can make a profit,” says Danushka*, who has migrated from Matale to Arangala to do this job. “The company commission is too much. But what can we do? If I run on my own, I won’t even make this much,” laments Sanju*, who has been a three-wheeler driver for over a decade.

Extra income

We came across many ex-service and in-service men who run three-wheelers to earn a part-time income. They were slightly arrogant, but were modest enough to reveal the truth. One professional who speaks fluent English and drives his own sedan for an American multinational transportation network company shared: “I have a daughter in Melbourne. This helps at least to some extent to make ends meet, plus it’s more for fun than you’d think. I have got a few better job offers through my clients. I am now considering one of those breaks.” Palitha* confided that we are the only acquaintances he shared this “secret” with. Sena is a pensioner from the Auditor General’s Department. “I feel bored when I stay at home, and this brings good money,” says the 60-year-old man.

How much?

Drivers we trust to be giving us genuine information said that they earn an average of Rs. 50,000 per month. This is while being a fulltime driver with one day off per week. Mutu* has come from an upcountry estate and is renting a little house in Malabe. His wife earns Rs. 20,000 as a housemaid, and with Rs. 70,000 a month, they seem to be happy with the life they lead.

Boss’s treatment

Most three-wheeler drivers have never met their employer; they registered through a representative. Most car drivers had visited the company and registered. However, after registration, there is little to deal with the company. Everything is done through the app, and the money is banked to drivers’ respective bank accounts.

“They are only friendly at registration,” lamented Upul* who claimed that Rs. 7,200 had been cut off from his commission twice. “There is a policy that I cannot take the same passenger more than once a day. But when the hire request comes, I cannot see the passenger profile. So I accept. And then this staggering amount is cut.” When inquired over the response he received when he complained, Upul said that the call centre agents are Indians, and there was nothing much he could accomplish. When this happened the second time, Upul had left the company to join another.

Cancellation

Cancellation of a hire incurs a cost for the passenger as well as the driver. As passengers, we have been in difficult situations where we were not able to cancel our ride even when our drivers got unreasonably delayed. One time, a driver stopped to replace a tyre and delayed our ride by over half an hour without even informing us. Suresh* shared that a driver has two chances per day to cancel. This explains why some drivers, when politely requested, cancel from their side, especially at night; maybe they had not reached their cancellation quota for the day. The drivers too have varying cancellation charges depending on the company.

Free rides

Most of you must regularly receive promotion codes from some companies, but have never gotten around to using them. Sujani* got her cash back from a complaint she made, but when she utilised that money on her subsequent ride, the rider was rude to her

Scooters

As adventurous as I am, I have never been on the back of a scooter. Ashamed of that fact, I felt I should take a chance on a new adventure. I tried booking scooters on my app for a while. but a scooter did not appear on my option screen for months. One time, while looking for a ride from Hotel Galadari, I saw that a scooter was listed. So, excited, I clicked for it before it disappeared – I had to call and confirm with the driver that he was coming for sure. I immediately felt that the driver’s tone changed as he heard my feminine voice. “This is a scooter,” he said defensively. When I said “it is okay”, he went on to explain what a scooter is. After that, I waited in excitement. As I got off that most courteous ride after a very polite, interesting conversation, the driver exclaimed that he cannot understand why a well-dressed lady had to ride a scooter. I went on to reveal my interest in taxi research, and he opened up too, saying that this is his part-time job, to which his family had objected due to social stigma. But as money started to trickle in, enabling him to pay the heavy loan, the family too co-operated. He told me many interesting scooter stories, including once having to give a ride to a co-worker in his company where part-time jobs are prohibited. “He (the colleague) kept quiet about it and I am still continuing,” Sena* said proudly.

All in a journey

We’ve all battled traffic, accidents, and for parking before we were blessed with affordable taxis. As we leave the battles behind when we get into a taxi, the three-wheeler or car taxi driver battles another battle behind the wheel – the battle of life. True, there are positive and not-so-positive experiences, but at the end of the day, driver or passenger, we are all on a journey. Let us be sensitive to the unspoken battle they fight, and be kind to those suffering through what we do not know.