Seoul looks to upgrade taxi culture
The murderers were taxi drivers. They stole 1,500,000 won ($1,597) and other articles and dumped the victims in the Han River. They were arrested three days later.
The same three men committed a similar crime in southern Seoul. A woman in her 20s caught a taxi in Gangnam and was raped and strangled to death near the Paldang Dam on the outskirts of eastern Seoul.
After months of investigation, the Seoul District Court ruled last month that all three criminals be sentenced to life in prison.
Taxi crime isn’t recent news.
In 2005, a 25-year-old flight attendant was kidnapped by a taxi driver in Bundang, Gyeonggi. She was found dead five days later. The driver turned out to be an ex-convict.
A police investigation found that the taxis used in the murder case were contract taxis - illegal cabs driven by a temporary driver who works on a daily basis.
The driver rents a taxi from a taxi company by paying 60,000 won to 80,000 won each day.
According to the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, there were around 72,500 taxis registered in Seoul in 2007. The number includes 21,874 public taxis and 49,513 private taxis (private taxi drivers must be older than 30 and have a perfect driving record for 15 years.)
There are also 5,000 to 10,000 unregistered, contracted taxis in Seoul.
Lee Heon-young, director of the Seoul Federation of the Korean Taxi Workers’ Union, says contract taxis are the source of taxi-related crime.
He says that regular full-time taxi drivers are the indirect victims of crimes committed by illegal drivers, because the criminals create a fearful image of taxis in the minds of some customers.
To regulate taxis and reduce crime, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation proclaimed last September that it would strictly penalize illegal drivers. Those caught will have to give up their driver’s license, and face imprisonment of up to two years or pay a fine of 20 million won.
Nevertheless, the prevalence of contract taxis won’t end anytime soon because they are cost effective.
Hwang Byung-ki, a taxi driver who owns a taxi company, expanded on the benefits.
Permanent drivers employed by a taxi company must pay the company 2 million won a month from their earnings.
The company in return pays drivers a monthly salary of 1 million won, plus their national pension.
But there are no regulations for contract drivers. Taxi companies even urge drivers to find work as contract employees.
Choi Jae-young, 29, a former taxi driver, said it doesn’t take much training to become a taxi driver.
“Anyone can become a taxi driver in Korea,” said Choi. “You can obtain a certificate in less than three weeks.”
All you have to do is take a two-hour qualifying examination, participate in a three-day training program and take a driving test organized by the Korea Transportation Safety Authority. The driving test inspects a drivers’ psychological behavior.
Kim Yeon-jin, a member of the Safety Authority, said exams are also given to test concentration.
“The process looks complicated but it is merely a formality,” Choi said.
While Choi admits that he is a poor driver, he was surprised that he was able to be classified by the authority as an adequate one.
“I even saw a person with a character disorder pass the test,” Choi said. “He eventually drove a taxi.”
Choi said hardly anyone fails the exam.
Out of 118,032 applicants who took the test, 94.7 percent (111,825 applicants) passed and 5.3 percent (6,207) failed.
“The indiscriminate training process allows rough drivers on the streets,” Hwang said. “Even an ex-convict or a hooligan can be a driver.”
Hwang blamed the training procedures.
“Training lecturers are either teachers or authority managers,” Hwang said. “They don’t have much practical experience.”
Hwang says the taxi industry needs a wholesale overhaul.
“It is inevitable that we will have to get rid of contract taxis,” Hwang said.
In fact, it is hard for some taxi companies to survive.
While Choi was driving a taxi, he said he earned 90,000 won a day. Of that, around 30,000 won was spent on fuel, leaving him a monthly paycheck of 1.8 million won.
With low pay but hard work, the job lasted only a month.
Now Choi runs an online shopping mall.
Several years ago, passengers were fighting over taxis.
But with an increase of personal cars, public transportation and taxi crime, fewer passengers look for taxis.
“Administrative officials aren’t active enough to improve the status of taxis,” Hwang said.
When people are concerned about taxi crime, they will wait until the next morning and catch the first subway or bus back home to avoid riding a taxi.
In an effort to improve taxi safety, the Seoul Metropolitan Government held a meeting at the World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong, western Seoul last month to introduce four new taxi companies ― Navi Call (1588-8255), Kind Call, N-Call (1588-3382) and S-Taxi (1588-8001).
The call centers keep track of the taxi location, driver and customer information.
Seo Mi-jung, 24, is a frequent user of call taxis.
She often gets off work until late at night, but she doesn’t worry.
All she does is dial the center. The driver arrives in five minutes. About 1,000 won is added to the regular fare.
It is also part of Seoul City’s improved policy to introduce taxis with a card-paying system.
Out of 72,000 taxis, the city’s goal is to convert some 15,540 taxis to call taxis.
By 2010, some 40,000 taxis (56 percent) will be run by the centers.
Yoon Young-min, the deputy manager of S-Taxi, said, “The center informs friends and families about the passenger and the driver.”
Though there isn’t much demand at the moment, Yoon anticipates that more people will rely on call centers in the future.
The company’s goal is to run 10,000 cabs by the end of this year. Currently, there are 4,600.
The city is supportive. It confirmed a 15 billion won budget to improve the taxi system.
It is also giving out subsidies to taxi companies or drivers that adopt the call-taxi system.
There is criticism, though.
In late 2007, when year-end parties increased the use of taxis to help customers who have been drinking, Park Sun-young, 25, had to stand 30 minutes in the cold, waiting for a taxi.
There were too many customers but not enough taxis. She could have taken a passing taxi but she had to wait.
“It’s only the start of change,” Hwang said.
“We should wait and see how the system goes.”
New call taxis may improve safety, service
The goal was to bring about a new taxi culture in Seoul.
Reforms are needed to provide safer taxi service following recent taxi crime (see above story).
Call taxis offer new services, including a card-paying system, notifying passengers and families of taxi location, offering passengers safety insurance, providing smoking or non-smoking taxis and female drivers.
Global Positioning Systems also allow call centers to keep track of where the taxi is located and if the taxi is vacant.
There are new policies regarding issues that most taxi passengers are concerned with - safety and convenience.
For female passengers who are afraid of crime, some 172 female drivers are allocated throughout the city.
There are also some 1,567 drivers who are trained to speak foreign languages, including English and Japanese, providing more convenience to foreign passengers.
But the system hasn’t been fully organized.
Jeong Do-hun, an official in charge of taxi policies from the Seoul City Government, said that there are no counselors at call centers who speak foreign languages as of yet.
For improvements, “We [the taxi team] are planning to create a liaison between call centers and tourist information centers for necessary translation services,” Jeong said.
“More improvements will be coming in 2008.” firstname.lastname@example.org
By Lee Eun-joo Contributing Writer [email@example.com]
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