By Raffique Shah
December 28, 2020
For the umpteenth time in past three or more decades, many people in this country that is never short of controversies, engage in sterile debate over an issue that might send people in other countries where there are real problems, into stitches of laughter. What is the hot topic today? “PH drivers”! Pulling bulls. P-H-who? Pulling what?
Let me explain. Because we are an all-roads, no-rail country, one means of transport is by taxis, motor vehicles and drivers who are certified as a law-abiding persons who are fit to own and operate motor vehicles for hire. Such vehicles must be kept in good working condition, and carries an identification number that starts with “H”—meaning for hire. There is another category of privately-owned public transport: the maxi-taxis, also called mini-buses, that seat between 12 and 25 passengers.
Then there are “PH” taxis and drivers. These are a breed apart, lawless from the get-go, in that they are not licensed or authorised to ply their privately-owned vehicles for hire, not legally, anyway. But thousands of them do just that. They far outnumber lawful taxis. They break road traffic ordinances at will, solicit “fares” on taxi stands established for “H” vehicles as well as in zones that the lawful operators are debarred from entering, and commit scores of infringements daily.
Thing is, because the country’s public transport systems are grossly inadequate to meet the needs of commuters almost everywhere, the “PH” drivers are deemed “essential” by commuters who rely on them. Every so often, though, some of these drivers commit crimes that put them in the spotlight. Recently, two or three of them were identified as suspects in the abduction, rape and murder of young women. They are alleged to have used the cover of plying their vehicles for hire to lure the victims to enter their vehicles, and later to commit the dastardly crimes.
Now, the average rational person will of course be horrified by the crime or crimes, but will hardly see all “PH” drivers as rapists or murderers. Not Trinis. As far as they are concerned, with the police reported to have strong evidence against one suspect, that is more than enough to brand them all sadists, and hang them high.
These are just a small number of crimes in a country where in 2018, there were more than 500 murders, which is understandably cause for concern. But in addition to murders and other serious crimes on the decline, how can anyone justify rage against thousands of vehicle drivers whose livelihoods involve “pulling bulls”, as they loosely describe their jobs? Now that public outrage has placed them under the microscope, the police are being asked to come up with strategies to eliminate the practice of plying private motor vehicles for hire, a mission that every political regime has vowed to eliminate, all unsuccessfully.
And so they will continue to be. You see, there is hardly a national public transportation system that can move even 25 per cent of commuters daily (and that is confined to just the main road-networks). What will the bulk of commuters do? Run from their homes to their places of work? How will school children, people going about their daily lives, fare if the authorities were to magically remove “PH” vehicles and their often uncouth drivers from the national grid?
It is easy for the licensed taxi drivers, who must comply with a range of regulations, including a dress code, to call for their competitors to be eliminated—or convert their vehicles into “H” cars. That will not happen because the system is too onerous against new entrants in the business. A huge obstacle is the bureaucracy in the Transport Division of the Ministry of Works, and the kleptocracy that everyone knows resides therein.
Besides, from way back when, dual-purposing, sometimes multi-purposing, private vehicles has existed, some might say peacefully and rewardingly co-existed with the operators and officialdom. And it will be asking too much of the police that they arrest and charge every “PH” driver in the country: they will have to convert almost the entire country into a prison-cum-pound for owners and their vehicles.
A crucial point is that “H” vehicles are fully insured to cover operator and passengers, while “PH” have the cheapest policies, Third Party. No one can convince me that insurance companies in T&T honour their commitment to passengers in the event of serious accidents.
The way I see it, “PH” drivers are a necessary nuisance with which the citizenry must co-exist. The police and licensing officials can help by rigorously enforcing the requisite safety of all vehicles on the nation’s roads. “PH” drivers must be held personally accountable for their passengers’ safety and lives. And commuters must exercise caution when entering any vehicle plying for hire, not just “PH” cars.
A peaceful, healthy and prosperous New Year to all.