When Deb Owen from Bendigo said she was robbed a few years ago, she didn’t expect her taxi driver to be the one to sit with her at the police station.
“You don’t get that in Melbourne,” she said.
For Bendigo residents like Ms. Owens who use a wheelchair or mobility device, Bendigo Taxis wheelchair accessible vehicles are often their only means of transportation.
As the company provides a vital service for the regional city of Victoria, it runs at a loss and seeks help from the state government.
Taxi drivers love “extended family”
For people who depend on it, Ms Owen says the taxi service offers more than just a way to get around.
“[The taxi service is] more a family… we all take care of each other,” she said.
Ms Owen says she felt this more strongly a few years ago after being robbed.
Although it is a peak time for wheelchair accessible taxis, Bendigo Taxis “has left no stone unturned” to get Ms Owen home quickly and safely.
Some time later, when Ms Owen took another taxi, her usual driver could sense that something was wrong.
Ms Owen informed the driver of the theft and that she was too afraid to go to the police.
“Unbeknownst to me, he radioed very calmly and said, ‘I’m just taking a detour…I’m taking him to the police station,'” she said.
“He came in and he stayed with me in the [police] interview.”
Lynn Cooper and her son Owen Cooper are also long-time passengers of the taxi service.
Ms. Cooper shares Ms. Owen’s sentiments on the importance of service.
“Wheelchair taxi drivers are [like] part of our extended family,” Ms. Cooper said.
“They really bend over backwards to try to help – they are exceptional employees.
“But there’s a lot of pressure on their serve.”
A crucial resource
The taxi service has around 11 wheelchair accessible vehicles in its fleet with around eight vehicles on the road at any given time.
Taxis are usually full in the early morning and mid-afternoon on weekdays and are virtually non-existent in the evenings and on weekends.
Trying to get a wheelchair accessible taxi in an emergency or without a reservation is next to impossible.
Bendigo Taxis manager Colin Wells understands how crucial the service is for people in the community who use a wheelchair or mobility device.
“[Our passengers are] entirely dependent on the service we provide,” Wells said.
In 2017, the Victorian government limited subsidies to wheelchair accessible taxi providers and opened up the market to allow any business to provide wheelchair accessible vehicle services.
There is no legal requirement for a company to provide wheelchair accessible taxi service to communities, and no incentive to do so.
Appeal for government assistance
Mr Wells says the state government must step in if regional taxi companies like his have any chance of meeting local demand.
“The main cause of the problem has been deregulation, plain and simple,” he said.
“The wheelchair fleet is simply not economically viable.
“It is unfair to expect a private company to provide services for a fee…and receive no contribution from anyone else.”
Mr Wells has proposed a trial that would see the state government provide new wheelchair accessible vehicles for the Bendigo fleet.
In return, the government would tax a portion of the company’s monthly earnings until the vehicles are reimbursed.
Mr Wells also suggested a condition that a minimum number of daily wheelchair lifts must be performed to ensure a vehicle is used for its intended purpose.
“I am pleased with the protection the current government feels is necessary to ensure this program is not abused,” he said.
“Responses have stalled and action taken is void.”
Parliamentary recommendations are insufficient
A recent parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s multi-purpose taxi scheme found that the taxi industry was struggling to meet the demand for wheelchair accessible vehicle services.
The most significant recommendation to come into effect as a result of the investigation included a change to the lift charge paid to a driver picking up a passenger who used a wheelchair.
But Mr Wells said it would not help businesses buy new vehicles.
He sent his proposal to the state government and received a letter from the Department of Transport saying he would take his points into consideration.
The ABC has contacted Transport Minister Ben Carroll as well as the state opposition for comment.
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