ABU DHABI // Jacob Maniel was about to reach his daily fare quota and clock off once he dropped off his final customers, three teenagers, in Baniyas. But instead of paying, his passengers spat at the taxi driver, hit him and ran away. Mr Maniel was left shaken and out of pocket. And he had to prolong his shift to make up the lost Dh45.
Mr Maniel, 33, is one of a growing number of taxi drivers who have fallen victim to passengers who refuse to pay and who sometimes turn violent when confronted. Drivers say it can happen anywhere, but is particularly prevalent in Baniyas, and normally involves teenage boys. When a passenger runs off without paying, the driver is required by his company to pay for the lost fare. The problem is becoming so widespread that many drivers now refuse to go to Baniyas.
TransAd, Abu Dhabi's taxi regulator, said passengers going to Baniyas were regular culprits. "They are mostly teenagers. There have been no complaints about girls," said Budour Abu Aqla, a TransAd call centre officer. Ms Abu Aqla said the number of incidents went up at weekends and had increased during the summer holiday. "This phenomenon was not at this rate before. Although drivers are becoming more aware of the issue, there are still more incidents taking place," she said.
Drivers are taking their own counter-measures. Some refuse to drive teenagers to Baniyas or to go to the town at all. Others insist on payment in advance or taking passengers' mobile numbers. But the problem is bad for business. Since a trip to Baniyas is usually a long one, it can be worthwhile, costing around Dh40 from Abu Dhabi city centre. "If a passenger runs away without paying, then it is quite a lot of time and money for the driver. Also, the driver might not find a passenger to take back," said Ms Abu Aqla.
TransAd has set up a team to deal with such incidents. If a driver has a mobile number or an address, the team would contact the passenger and ask them to pay the driver. But the team, said Ms Abu Aqla, could only request a person to pay. "They would explain that it is the driver who would have to pay," she said. "Some of them still refuse." Mr Maniel, an Indian, has fallen victim three times, each time to teenagers. As well as the incident in Baniyas, there were two others in Abu Dhabi city.
The three teenagers who went to Baniyas had been picked up outside the Carrefour supermarket on Airport Road. At the end of the journey, the group told Mr Maniel they did not want to give him money. "I caught the hand of the guy in the front seat and insisted they pay," said Mr Maniel. "He spat at me and started hitting me on the head. The other two got out of the car and joined him in attacking me.
"The other incidents took place near Marina Mall. They refused to give me money. I was not beaten in these instances but they pushed me and left." The incidents all took place after 9pm. "Night shift driving is too much of a problem as there are not many people to intervene," said Mr Maniel. He told of a friend, from Pakistan, who was beaten by five men after he told them he could not take five passengers because it was against the law.
Omar Farouq, an Indian driver, said passengers had failed to pay him on two occasions. He lost Dh10 to four children but someone stopped them and he got the cash. Another time, a woman told him she did not have money on her and said she would bring the money from her flat. "I could not do much because she was a woman," said Mr Farouq. "I took her number but she did not come back. I called her but she did not answer. I called her the following day but she hung up on me twice."
Many of his friends had experienced problems with teenagers. One drove a passenger westwards to Bada Zayed. The passenger gave him Dh200 at the start of the trip but ran off with Dh140 when the driver stopped for petrol. Ajaz Hussein, a driver from Pakistan, said this happened a lot in Baniyas. After he dropped off a man there who fled without paying Mr Hussein did not call the police because he "did not want problems" and the man had already got away. The fare was around Dh50.
"It is well known about Baniyas," said Mr Hussein. "If a driver has a brain and experience, he would not take someone from Baniyas unless he takes money in advance or something. New drivers do not know that, so it keeps happening." He said one of his fellow drivers was beaten by two or three men. Not only did they not pay him, they also mugged him out of Dh200. Sabit Hussain, from Pakistan, picked up four teenagers and an elderly man around 2pm in Abu Dhabi. They asked him to take them to Baniyas.
"The trip was a headache," said Mr Hussain. "It was a Thursday. I was working late because I would be able to sleep on Friday. When I got to Baniyas, the meter was Dh60 because they stopped me at a petrol station. One gave me notes which I could only count when they walked away. There was only Dh20, in fivers." Mr Hussain went after the group and saw two of the teenagers going into a house. He knocked on the door but the man who answered told Mr Hussain all his children were asleep. "I said two had just gone inside - I saw them.
"He insisted they were asleep and had not been to Abu Dhabi. I did not call the police because I was in a rush and had to work. I was not sure if any good would come out of it." Another time in Baniyas, he was offered only Dh20 for a Dh40 fare. He was given the correct money only after calling the police. "I just don't go to Baniyas now," he said. The police were unavailable for comment. firstname.lastname@example.org