Rough 'robot' ride on Red Hills Road


Sunday, August 26, 2012

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WRECKLESS driving by operators of robot taxis in the Corporate Area is spiralling out of control, forcing the police to search for new strategies to curb this dangerous behaviour, Traffic Chief Superintendent Radcliffe Lewis has said.

With the beginning of the next school year just two weeks away, the situation seems set to worsen, as the police have admitted that they haven't yet signed off on a permanent solution to the problem, which they acknowledge is most severe along the busy Red Hills Road to Half-Way-Tree route.

Two Saturdays ago, the wanton disregard for order was highlighted when this reporter attempted to get from Half-Way-Tree to a location close to Red Hills Road.

It was just after 9:00 pm, and, although there were many Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) buses on hand, this reporter decided against taking the state-owned transport as its frequent stops could cause me not to get to my destination before the 10:00 pm deadline I had been given.

My next option was to charter a cab, but the amount requested by two cab drivers convinced me to pursue another option, as the figure was enough to take care of at least two cold drinks that very night.

I made my way to North Odeon Avenue, in the vicinity of the Burger King outlet, where several 'robot' taxis were being loaded by energetic 'loader men' shouting "White Hall" and "Price Rite" the unofficial name for the termination point on Chancery Street.

I decided to be frugal and take my chances with one of these cabs, being fully aware of the notoriety of those which ply the Red Hills Road to Half-Way-Tree route.

For what it was worth, I decided to take a good look at each driver to determine the extent to which speeding and careless driving might be written on their foreheads.

That proved to be a most difficult task, as almost all the drivers, by their attire and hardened faces appeared to be intoxicated by hatred for anything civil.

Despite it being past 9:00 pm, the cover of night could hardly disguise the prominent bulges on the left front tyre of one of the Toyota Corollas that was being 'loaded' with passengers at what could easily pass as the loading bay of the Total Service Station that adjoins North Odeon Avenue and Constant Spring Road.

A cursory glance at the front wheels of another motor car was enough to convince me not to take that vehicle, as the tyres were far smoother than a newborn's posterior.

The condition of some of the other vehicles that came on the scene that Saturday night sent shivers up the spine, as it became apparent that the safety of their passengers was not a priority of some of the taxi operators, who on a daily basis transport hundreds of commuters across the city.

After about 15 minutes, I decided to board a Toyota Camry which appeared to be in reasonable condition, and which from observations, had fairly good tyres. And, unlike several of the vehicles that turned up at the loading bay while I was there, it boasted red public passenger plates — confirmation that it is authorised by the state regulator to transport passengers.

As I settled into my position on the back seat, I was joined by two other men and a woman who insisted that she wanted a window seat, but not the one at the front. Her wish was granted, even as another woman settled into the front seat, leaving the loader man to shout "mash road driva!" a signal that prompted the nattily clad, middle-aged man who could reasonably be called 'Scarface' to get into his driving position and move out of the area. This, even as two uniformed policemen — ticket books in hand — observed activities along the stretch of road, which was abuzz with activity.

As the traffic lights changed to green, the driver entered Eastwood Park Road, and as he did, he lowered his head to adjust the blaring car stereo system, while at the same time applying pressure to the gas pedal.

Within three minutes, he was clocking 110 kph in the extreme right lane as he headed north.

As he neared the entrance to Red Hills Road, the driver proceeded to switch lanes, still at high speed, and without the benefit of his left rear view mirror, as there was no glass in the housing.

Despite the flow of traffic, he made it to the extreme left lane and onto Red Hills Road where he darted in and out of his lane while hugging the steering wheel, which was literally jumping in his hands due to what was, no doubt, a faulty front end.

In no time, we were passing Calabar High School and 'Scarface', with amazing dexterity, moved deftly between the other vehicles that were making their way up Red Hills Road.

Despite the bright lights from approaching traffic, he showed that he was no coward, as he continued apace, without a single passenger saying a word.

As he made his final turn to get to Chancery Street, he stopped the vehicle above the Shell service station, collected the $80 fare from each passenger, then made his way across the road to the termination point.

'Scarface' made yet another successful trip up Red Hills Road, but if he is allowed to continue as he did that Saturday night, it may only be a matter of time before the undertakers are summoned.

Out of concern for members of the public, the Sunday Observer spoke with the head of the police traffic department to find out whether the police had given up on enforcement activities along Red Hills Road.

Superintendent Radcliffe Lewis, the man in charge of the division didn't hold back in detailing the chronic nature of the problem posed by the taxi operators, and the difficulties being encountered by the police in their efforts to restore order to the corridor. For the tough-talking policeman, the Red Hills Road taxi drivers, represent a nightmare.

"They don't stop when you stop them, instead they speed up them vehicle, and if you not careful they hit you down. Is a whole lot of near misses we have out there. When police have near miss with civilian you hear a lot of complaints, but when the taxi driver has near misses with the police, is nothing," said Lewis, who repeated his claim that the drivers often get away by speeding detouring through the tough Red Hills Road communities of Black Ants Lane, One Hundred Lane and Commons.

"If the police don't have reinforcement and decide to pursue them you end up with people throwing stones at the police, and in some cases the police actually come under gunfire," said Lewis, who declared that the police have revised the policy governing vehicle chases out of concern that they could endanger the lives of civilians.

For Lewis, a major contributor to the problem is the fact that many of the taxi operators believe they can complain to representatives of the country's two main political parties, who are expected to appeal to the police to take it easy on them.

"In the whole taxi operation you have people who depend on them (taxi drivers) directly and indirectly for maintainance. That system carry a large chunk of votes, and when the police apply pressure, they run to complain and threaten to shift allegience, and support another party," Lewis explained.

However, the outspoken lawman said the time had come for the two main political parties to denounce the activities of the taxi operators.

"What I want to see happen is for the two parties to denounce the driving of these men so that they don't have nowhere to hide. It is like the scrap metal trade," said Lewis, who insisted that he has not been asked by any political party to take it easy on the drivers.

Against that background, he disclosed that several approaches are being examined in the thrust to restore order to Red Hills Road. These include the deployment of additional police personnel at key points in Half-Way-Tree and on Chancery Street where the vehicles are loaded.

He added that in the medium to long term, tougher laws will be needed to address the problem.

"The police and Transport Authority are now in the process of asking that a law be passed that would see white plate taxis being seized and sold after being involved in three violations. Three strikes and you are out. They are a menace to the law-abiding citizens that traverse that road on a daily basis," Lewis complained.

Although acknowledging that there are good taxi operators on the route, Lewis remains adamant that several drivers along the stretch are frequently caught with fraudulent vehicle documents and driver's licences.




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