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 Post subject: FAQ - New to the trade?
PostPosted: Thu Oct 06, 2005 5:48 pm 
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Taxi Driver Online FAQ – New to the trade?

Please note that the following is for guidance only, and is provided without obligation. If in doubt, seek professional advice.

What’s the difference between a taxi, hackney carriage and private hire vehicle?

A hackney carriage can pick up passengers from the streets, either at a taxi rank or by being hailed elsewhere. A private hire vehicle (PHV) can only undertake work that has been pre-booked, usually by telephone. In the bigger towns and cities hackney carriages tend to be London-style ‘black cabs’, but they can also be standard saloon cars such as the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra, particularly in smaller towns and more rural areas. However, PHVs are almost always saloon cars. But an increasing trend for both hackney carriages and PHVs is the use of people carriers, minibuses and van-conversions, but these are always limited to seating eight passengers.

The term ‘taxi’ is often used instead of hackney carriage, particularly in government documents and legislation. However, some local authorities use the term loosely to refer to both hackney carriages and PHVs. In everyday use the word taxi is also used in this way, and this is also common in press reporting, hence there is often some confusion over the issue. PHVs can also be called mincabs, particularly in London, but this term has little official basis, thus PHV is more technically correct.

However, this FAQ will hereafter use the term taxi to mean a hackney carriage and its use does not also include PHVs.

How do I become a driver?

You will need to get a driver’s license (badge) from your relevant licensing authority. With around 400 UK LAs issuing licenses, practices vary greatly. In London, gaining the famous taxi driver’s ‘green badge’ requires around 3 years of rigorous study of the ‘knowledge’. Other authorities require little more than filling in a form and handing over a fee, typically £100 or so. However, there are many authorities requiring a knowledge test (which may be quite simple or reasonably stringent), while an increasing amount specify the passing of a special driving test. Medicals are also required by many, and you may have to pass a test on the relevant rules or attend a disability awareness course. Your local authority’s licensing department will be able to tell you the precise procedures, and many have sections on their websites outlining the applicable process.

The above applies to both taxi and PHV drivers, but in general it is more difficult to get a taxi driver’s badge than a PHV one. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, since to obtain a taxi badge in one area may be little more than a form-filling exercise, while being granted a PHV badge in another area may require the passing of ‘knowledge’ and driving tests.

Drivers must also be ‘fit and proper’, which basically means that they must be of good character. But again LAs vary considerably on how they apply this test in practice. For example, convicted killers and ‘career criminals’ have been granted badges in some areas, whereas in others breaches of the licensing rules have been deemed sufficient to suspend drivers’ badges. Likewise, a clean driving license is not required by all LAs, but each differs on how they approach previous convictions, penalty points etc.

Should I run my own vehicle?

In general terms you will usually be better off running your own vehicle, whether taxi or PH, but there are certain scenarios when it might be appropriate to drive a vehicle belonging to someone else.

If you are new to the trade, it might be a good idea to rent a vehicle from someone else or work for them under some kind of commission or wage basis. One reason for this is that you might well very quickly find out that the job is not for you, and if you have bought a vehicle, plated and insured it and kitted it out with a meter and roofsign, then you could end up losing a reasonable amount of money if you bail out of the trade fairly quickly. Driving for someone else, at least in the initial stages, gives you the chance to discover whether you will be suited to the job, and also gives you time to get a feel for the economics of car ownership and suchlike.

To that extent, some drivers prefer not to own their own vehicle. For example, they may find that paying an office a fixed fee for pre-booked work works out prohibitively expensive for a one-driver car, thus if they drive a car with multi-drivers then the costs are effectively being shared. Likewise, some drivers may be unable to finance the purchase of their own vehicle anyway. Many despatch offices rent vehicles to drivers under these circumstances, and this can often be much like the driver running his own vehicle, but paying a rental to a despatch office rather than repayments on HP (say).

In areas where taxi numbers are restricted, you will have to pay a premium for the license as well as buying the vehicle if you want to operate a taxi, and this premium can vary from hundreds of pounds to tens of thousands. Thus to that extent drivers might prefer to drive for someone else or perhaps go down the PH route. However, buying a plate can certainly be a good investment in the long run, but it should be borne in mind that LAs can remove restrictions on taxi numbers at any time, which would render the plate worthless. Thus buying a plate is a risky business.

What kind of office is best?

Offices vary enormously in organisation and size. Some may own all the vehicles that they operate, whereas a more common scenario is for other people to own the vehicles and pay the office a rental to provide them with work. While in the latter case the drivers may own the cars, there are other scenarios such as a multi-owner who has nothing to do with management or ownership of the office that his vehicles work from. By the same token, despatch offices may have a mixture of office-owned vehicles and others owned by individual drivers or fleet-owners. Similarly, individual owners may drive their vehicles themselves, or may also hire drivers to cover other shifts.

Offices can vary from a handful of cars to several hundred. While there are no hard and fast rules, larger offices tend to be more professionally run (they have presumably not become big without reason), while smaller offices can be more relaxed and flexible (although this might reasonably be interpreted as meaning indisciplined and unprofessional!). In larger cities offices tend to be big anyway, and smaller operations are less common. In small towns clearly fleets will be of a limited size. However, both large and small offices can be cliquey, and ‘feeding’ of preferred drivers is common in the trade.

While there are advantages to both the big and small environment when you are finding your feet, the best advice is probably to ‘suck it and see’. Of course, while if you intend driving a taxi you will normally have the option of working the streets and avoiding despatch offices, if you are taking the private hire route you will normally have no option but to start with an office. However, you could decide to start on your own, but this is a difficult option, particularly in the cities, and getting sufficient work to make a living while starting from scratch can be difficult. On the other hand, if you are taking the taxi route then you can rely on the street work while building up a pre-booked clientele. This is also now facilitated by the widespread use of mobile phones by individual drivers.

How much will I earn?

Earnings in the UK trade vary enormously, and at the extremes there are drivers working regularly for an hourly equivalent less than the National Minimum Wage, while it’s claimed that London black cab drivers are capable of earning a six figure sum (this is probably the gross figure), but the vast bulk of drivers earn nothing like that.

However, there are several pointers that can give some guidance towards how earnings will vary, but quantifying these things is effectively impossible.

An important initial factor is the difficulty associated with entering the trade. Thus if there are a number of significant hurdles to be negotiated before being awarded a driver’s badge (such as a driving test and stringent knowledge test) then this will ultimately mean less drivers in the trade and thus greater earnings. So don’t despair if there’s a lot of hassle involved in getting a badge, since in the long run the rewards are likely to be better.

Another factor is working conditions; thus the more unpalatable they are then the more you are likely to earn. Therefore drivers in bigger cities with difficult driving conditions and more unpleasant passengers are likely to earn more. Similarly, late at night, with often abusive and threatening drunks, is the most lucrative time in the trade. The unsocial hours aspect also comes into play here, and night drivers in general (and particularly weekend drivers) tend to earn more.

In areas with restricted taxi numbers, earnings depend on whether or not the driver is also a proprietor – the proprietor will tend to earn a better rate for the job, and will also probably hire other drivers to augment his earnings (this does not necessarily depend on restricted numbers, however). Thus buying a plate may be financially advantageous in the long run but, as mentioned above, this could turn out to be disastrous if the relevant LA derestricts taxi numbers in the short run.

Thus there is no straightforward answer to the earnings question. However, there’s no doubt that many drivers earn a reasonable income, but this may entail long hours and permanent night and/or weekend work. It should certainly be said that no driver will earn a fortune working office hours, Monday to Friday.

What is the best car for the job?

Again this is a difficult question to answer, but you should first check that your preferred vehicle meets the standard specified by your local authority, and these specifications can vary enormously.

As regards taxis, some authorities specify purpose-built cabs, ie the traditional London black taxi. Others merely specify that it has to be wheelchair-accessible, thus a new breed of alternative vehicles such as the ‘Eurotaxi’ are now common in some parts of the UK. If you can choose any wheelchair accessible vehicle, then you may find the alternative vehicles attractive, since they are cheaper to buy, use much less fuel and are more driver-friendly. On the other hand, many ‘traditionalist’ taxi drivers prefer the London-style cabs, particularly for their famously tight turning circle and better build quality (despite many complaints over reliability), and they have a proven long-term pedigree.

If you can run any vehicle as a taxi then the vast majority of drivers operate standard saloon cars such as the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra, as do private hire drivers. You should check the specification details required by your local authority, since you may end up buying a vehicle that you cannot use. For example, some local authorities specify age limits for vehicles, and some smaller vehicles like the Vauxhall Astra may be allowed by some authorities but not others. Vehicles may have to be a standard colour, and disputes have arisen because vehicles have not been the correct shade. Some multi-seat vehicles such as the Vauxhall Zafira may be allowed to seat six passengers by some authorities but can only be used as an estate car (ie seating four) by others.

People carriers and minibus-style vehicles are becoming increasingly popular with both sides of the trade (where permitted), but while fares may be higher and the work more lucrative, running costs are higher and more passengers often means more trouble. Starting with a more mainstream vehicle can be a good idea while you find your feet.

As regards specific models, to a large extent trade preferences reflect the private car market, thus cars like the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra are commonplace. However, other cars like the Skoda Octavia and Superb are increasingly popular in the trade, given their relative cheapness, build quality and reliability. Of course, as with cars generally, there are numerous factors to consider – for example, the Skoda Superb is very roomy, while the Octavia is tightish for interior space but has a much larger boot, and its hatchback configuration can prove useful with lots of luggage.

Given the large mileages covered by vehicles in the trade, diesel-powered vehicles clearly have an advantage regarding long-term costs. However, both modern petrol and diesel engines can easily cover 200,000 miles without major problems, but regular maintenance (particularly oil changes) is obviously essential given the mileages covered.

Specialist dealers supplying vehicles to the trade can be found on our links page at:

Version 1, 6 October 2005

If anyone wants any further info on the issues/pitfalls of becoming a cabby, then give this site a look in.

Taxi Driver Online

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