One day, I was in a hurry to get home after visiting a patient at a leading private hospital down Kirimandala Mawatha and got into a three wheeler from the ‘hospital stand’. Preoccupied as I was with the condition of the patient and the other errands I had to run, it was only after I was almost halfway home that I realized that the meter was running at Rs 50 /- per km, more expensive than an AC cab with four wheels!
All three wheelers with a functioning meter will read Rs 50/- or since a recent hike, Rs 60/- when a journey starts. After that, the standard charge is Rs 40/- per km. If you book one through a taxi company, either via telephone or mobile app, the rate can vary between Rs 30/- to Rs 35/- per km. But it is never more than Rs 40/-.
So when I asked the driver why his meter was running at that exorbitant rate, he simply replied that that was what all the ‘hospital stand’ tuk tuks charged.
As I subsequently discovered, these ‘special meter rates’ are quite common, especially outside hospitals. Many three wheelers plying outside the Apeksha Hospital in Maharagama or the National Hospital in Colombo for instance refuse to use the meter insisting they will charge an amount at the destination. This has resulted in even patients having to walk a short distance away from the hospital to hail a passing Tuk-Tuk.
For some time now, tuk tuks and I have had a sort of a love-hate relationship. They are of course a cheap and easy way of getting about, especially if you want to avoid our wonderful busses during rush hour. And while you can turn a blind eye, have a laugh or even agree with ‘Che wants you to rebel’ and similar pearls of wisdom stencilled across the back of the Tuks, their malpractices are hard to ignore.
Three wheelers that operate as part of taxi service offer competitive rates and their drivers are, for the most part, well-mannered and don’t sit on the horn. The bonus is that you always have the driver’s details either on the app or in the form of a text message. If anything goes wrong, there is way to track them down and a place to call and complain.
But hailing a tuk- tuk off the streets is another matter altogether, when you don’t know the driver from Adam and are in a hurry to go somewhere.
Some drivers refuse to turn on their meters as ‘there is too much traffic’ or the journey is ‘too short’. Others quote a random fare saying their ‘meter is broken’ often making that claim a mile or two into the ride. And then of course there are the meters that have been rigged and seem to run faster than an intercity bus.
Most also don’t seem to know their way about, and the passenger is left directing him, or having to stop every so often to ask for directions.
So when you get to the end of your journey, having gone through all the initial negotiations, and you hear the all too familiar ‘maaru ne (no change)’ because you know he is trying to keep the balance, it is hard not to feel angry and cheated. But whom can you call and complain to?
Successive Governments have, from time to time, declared that something needs to be done about three wheelers, meters and drivers. But the public is waiting to see if it is all just the usual empty rhetoric.
A Gazette notification was issued at the beginning of last year making it mandatory to use meters and issue a receipt to passengers unless the passenger refused a receipt. But the Tuk-Tuk drivers have not complied so far.
Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva has said that following the 1st August deadline this year, for three-wheelers to use meters, stern action will be taken against offenders, while Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera says that a Regulatory Commission on three wheelers will be established. Great! But when? August is already in its last week!!
While most Tuk-Tuk drivers are not out to rook you, unscrupulous drivers are, quite literally, all over the place. Refusing to use their meters and happily quoting outrageous fares, the need to regulate them and bring them to task is urgent. A widely publicised hotline needs to be established to call in complaints and sporadic testing of meters must be carried out. Fines for not using a meter, or using a rigged/faulty one, should be heavy.
President Sirisena has rejected Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala’s proposal that would make only those 35 years old or above, eligible to drive three wheelers. Interesting he does not think that an upper age limit also is needed. Perhaps the minimum age could be brought down to 25, or so, but the fact remains that the number of accidents amongst young drivers is high. And if not an upper age limit, there has to be stricter guidelines before all first time drivers are awarded their license and all Taxi drivers should also be familiar with the routes they ply on.
The reality is that our public transport system is appalling. Private buses either crawl from one bus halt to the next to pick up as many passengers as possible or race each other like some kind of Bus Grand Prix. CTB buses of course, are rarer than a Hayley’s Comet and the conditions of overcrowded trains don’t even bear talking about.
Therefore given the lack of safe, comfortable and affordable transport, the dependency of three wheelers has steadily increased, leading commuters right back to the dodgy meters and errant tuk- tuk drivers in a vicious cycle. Naturally they are confident enough to push out any government bid to regularise their trade.
In July this year, the government launched a three-wheeler service dedicated for the use of tourists. While it is wonderful that the government is giving the safety and comfort of tourists’ importance, they must also follow up on ensuring we, the citizens are protected.
Hopefully the Government will not drag its feet over this any longer and implement the changes that have been in the pipeline for more than a year. Meanwhile, it would be great if our Transport Minister hops a bus during rush hour, or maybe took three wheeler to parliament. Incognito, of course.