HANDY: Riders have to weigh the balance of convenience with potential risks when using taxi apps.
Johannesburg – You don't fight for parking. When you're stuck in traffic, you can log on to your laptop and do work. You don't pay insurance, maintenance, damages or fuel. And when you go out on the town, roadblocks are the least of your concerns.

Ride-hailing apps have certainly revolutionised the way urban dwellers think about transport. Some commuters are now even opting to ditch their cars altogether because it's often cheaper and more convenient just to catch a taxi.

The first ride-hailing service to enter the local market was Uber, in 2013. Since then a few others have offered some welcome competition, but in Joburg, Uber’s main competitor is Taxify, which allowed cash before Uber did, didn't charge “surge prices”, had a more user-friendly app and came in at a very competitive price. Some drivers work across platforms, by driving for both services, while others also drive for some of the major conventional taxi companies.

But a recent hair-raising experience with one of these services got me thinking: just how competent are the drivers and how can you be sure the taxi is safe?

Last month, the Gauteng Hawks arrested 14 licensing department officials. The officials were charged with fraud and corruption amounting to about R4 million – apparently for accepting bribes for traffic offences. One would hope action would also be taken against the motorists who paid those bribes.

How many more officials have issued fraudulent licences and public drivers’ permits (PDPs) is anyone's guess.

Joburg metro police spokesperson Wayne Minnaar told me the Gauteng Transport Department, not metro police, sets the tests: “The requirement for the PDP is a driver must provide a medical certificate and can't have a criminal record. They apply to the department for a road transportation certificate and do the test.”

The tests aren't particularly stringent. Judging by the competencies witnessed by some taxi drivers, quite a number, and that's excluding the minibus taxi drivers, are not as capable as they should be and shouldn't be on the road.

From drivers who virtually stop on corners to those who have no idea about negotiating traffic circles, and those who whiz through red traffic lights, it's clear some people should not only not be driving but they should also not be taking on customers.

A hair-raising experience

The experience that jolted me was when an incompetent driver from Taxify collected me for work. First he blamed his jerky driving on “some issue” with his wheels, then he drove on the wrong side of the road and stopped in the middle of an intersection. Luckily, it was 3.30 in the morning so there wasn't much traffic. Fearing for my life, I got out the car and called another taxi.

Despite Taxify’s “support” promising to respond within four hours on the app, there was silence on the matter. A week later I challenged them on Twitter. Then they offered a R100 credit, promised to send the driver for more training and put him on probation.

Linda Mahloko, Taxify’s operations manager, later contacted me: “I would like to personally apologise on behalf of Taxify and the driver for the terrible service you received. It's always a huge concern for us when one's life is put in danger because the driver was not able to drive in the correct manner. When this does happen we send them to a re-training course and they also have to go and pass an advanced driving course.

“All our drivers go through a background check process and they have to have a valid (PDP). In order to be issued with one of these, the driver is required to have had a normal driver's licence for at least three years. Once they come to training we also go through an additional step of verifying the (PDP) is indeed valid by accessing the government's traffic register system. We strive to always provide an excellent and affordable service at all times.”

How are drivers vetted?

I asked Mahloko to explain how such drivers get on to their system in the first place – how they're vetted, whether they're tested regularly and whether cars are checked for being roadworthy. He declined the opportunity to comment further.

So I asked Uber, which has had its fair share of bad press, to explain their processes for dealing with bad driving. Uber Africa spokesperson Samantha Allenberg told me: “Before a driver is allowed to use the Uber app, drivers first have to undergo a screening, including background and driving history checks, and he/she is required to have a (PDP). This means the driver has undergone police clearance in order to obtain this permit before they can use the Uber app.

“Uber has partnered with Dekra to ensure drivers can have vehicles inspected any day of the week, at their convenience. Uber shares an ‘Uber Vehicle Inspection’ report with driver-partners, which is a requirement to on-board any vehicle.”

Feedback process

The feedback process, which both Taxify and Uber utilise, is important. Allenberg said: “Drivers and riders can give feedback and ratings after every trip. After every ride, you and your drivers need to rate each other and provide feedback. Our safety team reviews this information and investigates any issues.

“Uber offers 24/7 support. If something happens in a car, whether it's a traffic accident or altercation between riders and drivers, our customer support staff are ready to respond to any issues 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have a dedicated Incident Response Team to answer any more urgent issues. If we receive a report that a driver or rider has acted dangerously or inappropriately, we suspend their account, preventing him or her from accessing the platform while we investigate. Rider and driver accounts can be suspended permanently.”

Two weeks after the complaint on Taxify’s app, they still haven’t looked at my message, which doesn't exactly fill one with confidence they are listening to customers. It’s a pity, because most of their drivers are competent, hard-working people. But my question remains: how do the dangerous drivers slip through the cracks?

The Star