CORRECTED. Opinion: Who Owns The Taxis and Buses, And Why Is This A State Secret?
Clarifying to say deadliest for this year.
Following the deadliest weekend for road traffic accidents this year in Jamaica where ten persons died, 18º North is re-posting this editorial for free with one slight edit.
Though Public Passengers Vehicles (PPVs) account for only about *6% of road fatalities, in this case, without ascribing blame, five of the ten persons who died over the weekend were operators or passengers of PPVs, according to the government’s Road Safety Unit.
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Just as we were trying to wrap our heads around news last month of a coaster bus driver causing an eight-car accident while having 120 outstanding tickets, some bus and taxi drivers in Jamaica decided to strike.
Their aim was to pressure the government into issuing an amnesty for those operators who’ve racked up unpaid traffic tickets, but they were unsuccessful.
Now we’re getting more information about just how negligent some drivers have been.
According to Justice Minister Delroy Chuck, there are more than 2,000 drivers with over 100 tickets each and about 50 drivers that have accumulated more than 500 tickets apiece. He told me that while the figures from the Ministry of National Security represent drivers in general, they’re “most likely public passenger vehicle drivers.”
So how are PPV drivers allowed to rack up this many tickets and keep their jobs when driving for bus and taxi owners?
Who are the owners of these vehicles that allow them to keep driving?
In July of this year, while seeking the information for a different story, I requested under the Access to Information Act, “a list of all the associations, entities or individuals that are licensed to carry public passengers in this country whether taxi, bus or other?”
Within nine days, Jamaica’s Transport Authority (TA) advised that it is “unable” to grant access under the Act for the following reasons:
The Transport Authority has no official document containing the information requested in your email for disclosure under the Access to Information Act (ATI).
The information requested concerns the commercial interests and personal affairs of persons and organizations including the Transport Authority.
The information requested is exempt from disclosure under section 20 (b) of the ATI which states that, “An official document is exempt from disclosure if it contains information concerning the commercial interests of any person or organization (including a public authority) and the disclosure of that information would prejudice those interests.
Section 22 of the ATI expressly states that a public authority shall not grant access to an official document if it would involve the unreasonable disclosure of information relating to the personal affairs of any person, whether living or dead.
The Transport Authority has a duty to issue all public transportation licenses and so response number 1 may be true, but it’s not credible.
Further, the Transport Authority routinely publishes names and addresses of Rural Stage Carriage Applicants, like this ad recently in The Gleaner (below), and so responses 2-4 refusing access based on the “unreasonable disclosure” of the personal affairs and commercial interests of those operating in the sector, when the TA is already doing the honors, is also hardly believable.
How can knowing the names of owners of taxis and buses be considered unreasonable disclosure? These are individuals and entities licensed to carry PUBLIC passengers. This is not a private matter!
The government is already sold on the idea that passengers should know who is transporting them by currently requiring taxi drivers to wear or display identifying badges that have their addresses. Why shouldn’t the information of the owners also be displayed?
How Taxi Owners’ Employment Arrangement With Drivers Incentivizes Mayhem
The Transport Authority told me that as of November 25, there are 32,199 licenses issued for Public Passenger Vehicles (PPVs). Around three-quarters of them are operated by drivers who don’t own the vehicle, according to estimates by Egeton Newman, President of the Transport Operators Development Sustainable Services (TODSS), which usually speaks on behalf of bus and taxi operators.
He explained to me that drivers are usually hired on contract, and before paying themselves, must buy gas and guarantee a certain sum to the owner every day or every week.
This model incentivizes drivers to rush to get passengers to where they’re going as quickly as possible so they can load up again and repeat the process. In the mayhem, drivers break the road rules, wreak havoc on the roads, and are frequently involved in accidents.
The government’s Road Safety Unit wasn’t able to provide figures on how many PPV-involved accidents as a percentage of overall crashes occur each year. However, Peter Levy, Managing Director of British Caribbean Insurance Company (BCIC), the largest motor insurer in Jamaica by premium income, told me that “What we see is a very much higher frequency with taxis than other vehicles having accidents.” He said that based on data between November 1 last year and October 31 of this year, 29.4 of every 100 taxis insured with BCIC will have an accident in a 12-month period compared to 10.4 out of every 100 non-taxis. So almost three times as frequent.
When the drivers get tickets, one taximan in Portland explained to me “If you get it by the fault of the car, then the owner pays the ticket. If it’s the fault of the driver, the driver pays for it.”
Even if a driver racks up a bunch of tickets and the owner objects, they just move to another owner, Mr. Newman explained.
He adds that though it should be incumbent upon the owners to check to ensure that their drivers are “clean” before hiring them, “they don’t care because they want their $6,000,” referring to the charge an owner may charge a taxi driver each day.
He said the owners come from all walks of life - doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and even from within the ranks of police and soldiers. “My rough estimate is that 13-15% of the PPVs are owned by members of the security forces,” he said.
If he’s correct, that’s as many as 4,800 vehicles that are in a compromised position -meaning a traffic police may think twice before issuing a ticket to an unruly driver who works for a fellow squaddie or a high-ranking officer, who, in turn, has the ability to block his or her promotion within the force. Even if they do get tickets, drivers who have police bosses might get a pass when they’re stopped and the ability to keep driving on the road, rather than having their vehicles seized.
Force Orders from 2008-2011, or directives from the High Command, had warned police personnel against engaging in outside work that would produce a conflict of interest, and they specifically prohibited them from serving as drivers of buses or taxicabs but didn’t explicitly outlaw them being PPV owners. However, a 2013 Force Orders seen by me doesn’t include the prohibition language around driving of PPVs, and, despite checks, it’s not clear whether that means there were any changes to the policy and what the actual guidance is regarding police being owners of PPVs.
How can someone sworn to uphold the law be allowed to profit from their employees breaking it?
Perhaps a similar question could also be asked of Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who 18º North reported in 2016 was a director of Sunshine Mobile Company Limited. That company’s business was “proprietors and carriers of passengers and goods in both public conveyance and private vehicles” before it was subsequently removed from the companies registry in 2018, two years after Mr. Holness became prime minister for a second time.
Company records show that his wife and current member of parliament, Juliet Holness, had also been a director of a firm, Delido Taxi Service, which was removed from the company rolls in 2011, long before she entered politics in 2016.
When asked about whether they still have any involvement in the public transportation sector in a private capacity and whether they currently own any taxis or buses on the road, Mrs. Holness replied via WhatsApp, “I have none.” Mr. Holness didn’t respond to the questions sent by email.
When asked, the Transport Authority told me that neither Sunshine Mobile nor Delido came up in their system based on the information I provided, and they would need additional information, unavailable to me, in order to do a thorough check.
Knowing the Owners’ Names is Helpful to Public Safety
Even from a safety standpoint, knowing the owners’ names is important.
It should be standard procedure that if someone goes missing in a taxi, their loved one or member of the media should be immediately able to call in a plate number, if known, to the Transport Authority, retrieve the owner’s name and be able to make contact. They shouldn’t have the experience like I had of calling the TA just to see whether I could get the owner’s name if I have a plate number, only to be told they usually don’t give out the owner’s name but that I could come in and try to speak with the higher-ups.
If owners’ names are immediately made known, loved ones of the missing, the media and John public can have more immediate pressure points in order to get answers to questions like: When was the car picked up from the owner by the driver and when was it dropped off? Was there a background check run on the driver before being hired? What kind of safety and tracking mechanisms did you put in place, as the owner of the car, for the benefit of the traveling public?
If owners know that there is some measure of accountability and that their names will be all over the news if something goes wrong with their driver, they will be more circumspect in who they hire. Drivers will be a lot more careful with the passengers they’re carrying as well if they know that their boss’s reputation is on the hook - especially if it’s a police!
BCIC’s Mr. Levy says “having knowledge of who the owner is would be an antidote to this kind of conflict of interest that is widely thought to exist in the transportation sector.”
He adds that when someone goes into a business where safety is at risk for members of the public, “the government ought to be prepared to compromise that privacy because it’s more important for public safety.”
How To Ensure More Accountability From PPV Owners
Mr. Newman from TODSS, which represents the interest of bus and taxi operators, says the government providing the owners’ names and the parish “would be okay”, although he doesn’t believe in linking the plate number to the published names unless it’s required by law because then it is “becoming personal”.
He says the new Road Traffic Act, when enacted, should help solve the problem of owners becoming more circumspect about who they hire. According to the Act, once a vehicle is captured on to-be-installed electronic devices for offenses like breaking a red light, speeding or making a wrong turn, the ticket will be in the owner’s name.
Even without the new law, the Transport Authority told me it already has a system in place where drivers who come in to renew their badges every two years aren’t allowed to do so if they have outstanding tickets in the system, and the owners must hire drivers who have badges.
But with so many drivers having numerous outstanding tickets on the roads, clearly that system isn’t working well, whether from the Transport Authority’s side or from the standpoint of the police’s ticketing system.
Mr. Levy of BCIC says insurance companies could be a check and balance for the transportation sector as well if they were given access to reliable tickets data. That way, they could do a better job of pricing out bad drivers.
The Insurance Association of Jamaica (IAJ) also already has a nifty electronic system in place called IVIS, where anyone can input a license plate or chassis number and see if a vehicle is insured and by what company. The IAJ told me that they have the technical capability to go a step further and also return the name of the owner but “we are not able to reveal the owner of the vehicle for privacy reasons.”
I would argue that to clamp down on some of the chaos on the road and to ensure the information we’re getting is current, the government should mandate that the names of all PPV owners be made public and a special arrangement made with the IAJ to return the names of the owners upon inputting a PPV plate number.
The law already requires the Transport Authority give notice in writing to existing operators of new applications for certain PPV licenses, which usually results in the TA publishing the names and addresses of the applicants in the newspaper. There’s no reason why, then, when the applicants are finally given the license, that the government can’t then go the extra step and make the owners of those and all other PPV licenses public.
By currently withholding the owners’ names, the Transport Authority appears complicit in the corruption and disorder on the roads. One is left to wonder whether the real reason for refusing to provide the information is meant to conceal and protect, rather than to avoid prejudicing, some very-conflicted private and commercial interests.
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*The figure that PPV passengers and operators account for about 6% of road fatalities is based on 2022 data as of November 15, compiled by the National Road Safety Council.