Transport

Taxi and Uber drivers face safety challenges under lockdown

Taxis drivers working during lockdown are facing challenges to keep themselves and their passengers safe, and rideshare service drivers face extra problems.

The Taxi Federation's John Hart says most companies are asking callers who request a taxi whether the travel is allowed under the lockdown rules.

"If they don't meet the criteria then a taxi won't be dispatched."

He said most were doing this responsibly, but he had heard of one case where a company had been caught agreeing to drive a passenger to a party.

However a bigger concern is people who may have the virus, who need to travel to and from health care facilities.

"A number of companies have been asked to transport people with symptoms to centres where they can be tested. In most cases they have declined, because of the risk that poses to drivers and those passengers who come next, and those passengers could well be health workers in pretty important positions."

He says in some cases police cars were used to pick up people with symptoms, but government agencies are currently discussing the problem.

A small fleet of mini-vans being called into use to meet this need is one option he understands is being considered. Whatever is used, it will need to be adapted so it can be properly disinfected between trips.

Taxi drivers are already making efforts to clean their cabs between passengers, but there were limits to what could be done, Hart said.

"They're making sure surfaces are kept clean and disinfecting any hard surfaces, but soft surfaces of course present more challenges."

Hart said taxi drivers are being told to consider only picking up one passenger at a time, and to have them sit in the back in the diagonal space to the driver, to try to maximise space between them.

Drivers are also recommended to wear masks to protect themselves and passengers, but are having difficulty getting hold of them. The Federation has asked the government for supplies of masks to be made available for drivers, and has been told they will receive some, but it is not yet clear when.

Rideshare drivers have told RNZ they are concerned their customers are not asked whether they have symptoms or are allowed to travel.

One Uber driver, who asked not to be named, said he wants to continue to offer essential transport, but has no way to tell if a passenger is safe to transport until he arrives at the pick-up point.

On one day last week he believed most of his passengers were travelling between houses on social calls that broke the isolation rules.

Hart said this presented problems, because once a driver speaks to a passenger at the pick-up point they've already opened the car door and potentially contaminated the cab, and drivers refusing passengers at that point would be out of pocket for their return trip.

Uber would not speak with RNZ, or answer questions about what was being done to screen people booking rides. But sent a statement noting essential travel was still allowed, and asking users to wash their hands, cover their mouth and nose, sit in the back seat and open the windows.

A spokesperson for rideshare company Ola said "our drivers are entitled to cancel any ride that may be being used against lockdown guidelines."

The company also apologised for advertising emailed to customers last week offering parcel delivery service for non-essential items.

"Due to the frequently changing lockdown regulations in New Zealand, today unfortunately we provided our customers with inaccurate information regarding Ola's delivery capabilities during this time.

"To clarify, Ola rides can only be taken for critical travel and our package delivery service can only be used for transporting essential items."

A number of rideshare drivers spoken to by RNZ have chosen not to work for the services, because of the risks posed by the spread of the virus.

Hart says much of the taxi workforce is older people who are vulnerable to the disease, and estimates only about a quarter to half of drivers are still working.

"When the lockdown started many drivers went and parked their cars up their driveway, and said 'I'm not coming out until it's over.

"It's really hitting taxi companies very very hard."

This article was originally published on RNZ and re-published with permission.

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