The ongoing taxi war in Brussels and the rise of unlicensed drivers

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
The ongoing taxi war in Brussels and the rise of unlicensed drivers
Credit: belga

Concerns have been raised about the possibility of some unlicensed taxi drivers in Brussels “ripping off” the travelling public. It is alleged that some may be conning innocent passengers, particularly unsuspecting tourists, into paying up to three times the normal fare for journeys.

A police source says one major problem with rogue private hire drivers who try to lure passengers into their vehicles is that they are not insured to carry passengers. It means that if there is an accident, the passenger is not covered. Although they may be relatively few in number, another problem is that such people cheat the public by charging rates which are way over the norm.

It could also be the case that such drivers are driving unroadworthy vehicles, which increases the risk to passengers. “The best advice we can give the public is to never flag down or take a cab unless you are sure it is legitimate,” said the source.

Xavier Scrase, a private hire driver in Brussels, says one of the problems facing his trade is “lack of enforcement by the police and city authorities against rogue operators.” He says, “Private hire operators are law abiding and run legitimate business and anyone operating differently give us a bad name. The rules exist but what we need is rather stricter enforcement.”

The city, though, says it is taking a tough stance against unlicensed taxis, as outlined to The Brussels Times by Pascal Smet, who as the Minister of Mobility and Public Works is responsible for taxi and private hire vehicle services with drivers (PHV).

Many of these efforts have concerned the activities of Uber drivers here. For example, in 2014 and 2015, he said the city prosecuted Uber for their “Pop” service, a private hire vehicle service with unlicensed drivers. Smet’s spokesman, Mathias Dobbels, told The Brussels Times: “Anyone with a car and a driver’s license could offer these services without any guarantee as to safety, insurance, decent revenue for drivers or technical inspection of a vehicle used for commercial purposes.”

After a verdict by a Brussels judge, Uber stopped its Pop service and converted to Uber X, which is a service working with licensed drivers under the Brussels Region’s PHV legislation. In addition to Uber X, there are other operators making use of this legislation and developing similar services, such as CarASAP. The spokesman added, “All of these services operate legally in Brussels, although they are making use of legislation dating back to 1995 and sometimes interpret the law creatively.”

“For instance, the law says you should work with contracts of a minimum of three hours and 90 minutes, but it doesn’t say that individual trips should be three hours long or that you can’t conclude a contract with a group of clients. So, all of these operators work with framework contracts in which they offer smaller trips as part of the contract. But since they are all licensed drivers, we can only apply sanctions such as confiscating the car or the license, if one of three issues is not in line with legislation: the driver must have proper commercial insurance, a valid technical inspection certificate and a valid license.” 

In fact, only two cases of illegal non-licensed taxi services have been brought to the attention of the Brussels authorities. One involved unlicensed taxis from Gare du Midi to Paris and was linked with exploitation of workers and drug trafficking.

Smet, though, also highlights another issue: taxis registered in Flanders operating in Brussels. His spokesman explains: “This is illegal as they can only drop off or pick up if they have a pre-ordered trip. It is one of the consequences of the regionalization of taxi-issues. It also means Brussels taxis can only drop off at Brussels National Airport and have to go back empty. My minister wants to stop this absurdity by granting access to Brussels at the airport and vice versa for airport taxis in Brussels. But the Flemish Region and the commune of Zaventem, where the airport is located, are not cooperating on this.”

To tackle these and other related issues, Smet has proposed a taxi-plan in which both private hire vehicles and taxis would operate under the same rules “so as to create a level playing field and equal competition.”

“The plan reinforces the position of drivers by granting licenses to them personally, instead of to taxi-companies who exploit drivers without licenses and force them to rent licenses which are limited in number,” Dobbels says. “This leads to poor service, refusal of small trips, detours to increase fares and refusal to accept payment with a credit card.” He concludes, “the new plan would therefore not only take better care of the drivers but also improve the quality of service in the Brussels Region.”

Taxi rules

Brussels capital region has implemented tough rules to guarantee the best – and safe - service for taxi users. Vehicles cannot be in service for more than seven years from the date they are first used and all taxis should be fitted with a taxi meter connected to a printer.

Drivers must issue a printed ticket at the end of each taxi ride. The ticket gives the vehicle identification number (4 digits), the order number for the taxi ride, the date and time of pick-up, the number of kilometres travelled, the rates applied, the total for the taxi ride and the freephone number. Since 1 January 2016, it has been compulsory for all Brussels taxis to carry a credit card reader.

A spokesman for the Federation of Belgian Taxi Drivers (Febet), the organisation that represents licensed and official taxi drivers in Brussels, points out that drivers need a certificate of competence to practice their profession. To obtain this certificate, candidates must successfully complete a series of behavioural tests, a theory test and a practical exam. Drivers' certificates of competence are renewed every two years.

Drivers can undertake training courses, “designed to provide the knowledge necessary to transport people to their destination in safety,” the Febet spokesman said. He also recommended that passengers should look out for certain features on a vehicle so as to be sure they are taking a legitimate taxi. For example, since 2011, Brussels taxis must have a light on their roof known as a "Sputnik" featuring the black and mango-yellow checked pattern.

They are also fitted with a rectangular id plate with 4 yellow digits on a blue background featuring the Brussels Iris. This plate is attached to the front right-hand bumper of the taxi. The taxi's identification number also appears on the vehicle's rear wings. In addition, this taxi ID number is in two specific places inside the vehicle; on a plate attached to the dashboard (generally above the glove box) and on the laminated rate card attached to the back of one of the vehicle's headrests. All Brussels taxis have also a licence plate with the letters TX.

Exploiting loopholes

Sam Bouchal, secretary general of Febet, also highlighted what he says is “another particular problem”, namely, limousine drivers who pass themselves off as private hire drivers. “These people are not considered a taxi company and can therefore operate without taxi licence,” he stresses. The problem, he says, is that some rogue limousine operators are doing just that – plying for trade on the street and picking up fares when they are not licensed or insured to do so.

He points out that limousines must be pre-booked and cannot ply for trade from a public street. Limo drivers are not subject to the same tough conditions, such as aptitude tests and training, as private hire drivers (who are also legally obliged to provide proof of good character). A limo license costs between €250 and €680 compared with €65,000 to €85,000 for a private hire equivalent. Bouchal says, “We have nothing against competition but everyone must comply with and respect the law.”

Though very few cases have actually come to light, complaints about those who illegally ply for hire are on the rise, not least from visitors to Brussels, who are sometimes grossly overcharged. These include people like Susan Rushton, 19 and Karen Whalley, 22, from Manchester, who, on a recent visit to the city, were charged €70 for a 2km trip – and were then dumped in the city’s red light area when they queried the fare. Susan said, “I think it was outrageous to drop two young women in the middle of the night in such a dark and potentially dangerous place.” Clearly, the message is: Watch out for unlicensed taxis, which can be overpriced at best and dangerous at worst. 

Anyone who is concerned that they have fallen victim to an unlicensed driver can contact the Taxis Directorate, the organisation in charge of the administrative management and control of taxis and rental cars with drivers in the Brussels-Capital Region. It can be reached via 0800 94 001 or at Brussels Regional Public Service, Brussels Mobility Direction des taxis, Rue du Progrès 80/1, 1030 Brussels. 

By Martin Banks

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