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Sunday, Dec 03, 2023

Hong Kong’s taxi drivers need tighter health checks, not harsher penalties

Hong Kong’s taxi drivers need tighter health checks, not harsher penalties

Rather than a hard age limit on driving or harsher penalties for dangerous or careless driving, the focus should be on tightening health checks for all drivers. That approach, plus finding a way to regular ride-hailing services such as Uber, can nudge the market towards sorting out its own issues.
It is striking how one’s perspective changes with age. When I was a young driver, I wanted all those old fogeys in front of me banned from the road for blocking my way. How dare they be so slow to move off when the lights change? Don’t they know some of us have places to go and things to do?

Now in my 70s, I tend to be much more understanding of a safe and steady driving style. It’s true that where you stand on an issue tends to depend on where you sit, in this case literally.

The long-running debate on whether there should be an age cap for commercial drivers was reignited last week after a taxi driven by an 85-year-old man ploughed through a busy pedestrian crossing, critically injuring two people. Data presented to the Legislative Council in 2021 showed that more than half the taxi drivers in Hong Kong were aged 60 or above and close to 10 per cent were 71 or above.

Commissioner for Transport Rosanna Law Shuk-pui recently told the media that the number of traffic accidents involving older motorists was not particularly higher than the number involving younger people.

All drivers above 70 must undergo a health check to renew their licences, every three years for private motorists and some commercial drivers, annually for others. The question is whether the checks should begin at an earlier age – 60, for instance – whether it should be more frequent and whether the existing check are thorough enough.

Common sense suggests most drivers in need of a health certificate would in practice consult their local doctor. That person would be more familiar with the driver’s medical history, which is a positive, but by definition the latter would be a regular source of income for the doctor’s practice which could give rise to a generous assessment.

Terry Lum Yat-sang, a Hong Kong University professor of social work and social administration, said on an episode of RTHK’s Backchat last week that the health check should assess physical, mental and cognitive abilities to be effective.

That would require a general practitioner plus an occupational therapist and a geriatrician unless the GP had those specialist skills, which most do not. That would argue for the creation of dedicated centres where all such skills could be found to provide a “one-stop” service, but that seems rather elaborate and certainly excessive for casual drivers.

There have been suggestions that Hong Kong should introduce a “drop dead” date like those that exist for vehicles – 18 years for buses and 15 years for other commercial vehicles. Should people be allowed to drive at all after a certain age, say 85?

In principle, I am not in favour of such a proposal. We should be focused on objective criteria such as eyesight, reflex speed, blood pressure and overall health. Would it be reasonable to deny an individual the pleasure of driving even if their performance in all these aspects was up to the mark?

Conversely, the fact that some seniors in their 70s or 80s drive taxis because of the need to make a living is not an argument for less strict health checks. We should not relax safety standards which protect the public at large to address a social problem experienced by an unfortunate few.

Legislator Michael Tien Puk-sun suggested the penalties for dangerous or careless driving causing death or injury should be increased to deter people from getting behind the wheel if they had any doubts about their own health. I do not favour this proposal, either.

People won’t normally put themselves at risk, and most would have enough community spirit to not deliberately endanger others. But an exception should be made for cases where the driver needlessly increased the chances of an accident by consuming alcohol or drugs or was focused on their mobile phone. Our accident rate is high enough without people taking deliberate steps to make them worse.

Underlying the whole debate is the question of why so many young people seem unwilling to be taxi drivers. But is this really the case? Every Uber trip I have arranged has been provided by a young driver in their own clean and well-maintained vehicle, with polite, door-to-door service by the most direct route for an agreed fare.

So it’s not the concept of providing transport for hire that is the problem, it is the idea of an approved vehicle for a set fare and a system controlled by a small number of licence holders. An obvious remedy to meet a labour shortfall like this is to increase pay, but the present arrangement leaves the driver at the mercy of market vagaries.

Splitting the existing industry into several major players, each operating a fleet of vehicles and hiring drivers with attractive salaries and benefits, would require an extensive overhaul and restructuring that would take many years. I cannot see the government attempting such a bold move, nor would I think it wise.

Far more likely is a sensible tightening of health checks to ensure all drivers are reasonably alert and capable. That, plus finding a way to regulate Uber, might nudge the market into sorting itself out. Perhaps the young Uber drivers might also switch to taxis when they are older. After all, perspective changes with age.
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