• 2006-07-19

cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

One doesn't have to live long in the Baltics before hearing a wealth of stories about the habitual horrors and misdemeanors of local taxi drivers, especially in the capitals. One tale that particularly stands above the rest occurred in March 2005, when a 38-year-old Riga cabby was stopped twice in one night 's and both times for driving under the influence of alcohol. Try beating that. Although this anecdote could be as indicative of the quality of law enforcement as of regional taxi services, it drives home the point.

One never knows what to expect when opening the door of the next candy-colored automobile with checkered patterns on the side. What causes the Baltic states the most harm is cab drivers' unscrupulous pricing policies. From the moment they see that they're transporting a foreigner, the imp on their shoulder begins whispering sinful ideas, and the next thing the fearful visitor knows the driver is doubling, tripling the fare. Riga was unabashedly awash with this racket during the recent hockey championship, and one can only wonder what the repercussions were.

It's an old scheme, and one practiced throughout Europe. (Moscow, for instance, is far, far worse than anything imaginable in the Baltics 's try agreeing on a drive from Sheremetyevo-2.) But it's also why many foreigners either a) scratch the Baltics off their travel itinerary, or worse, b) go home with a nasty impression and tell their friends and acquaintances to scratch the region off the itinerary. Why isn't something being done?

Thankfully, something is. The Tallinn City Council has passed a batch of regulations aimed at the city's notorious taxi drivers. Starting this week, Tallinn cabbies will be required to have fare prices in two languages and, in plain view, exhibit a telephone number where disgruntled passengers can lodge complaints. Cabs without a meter will no longer be allowed. Most drastic of all, however, is the caveat that the burden of doubt now belongs to the driver; if he can't prove the validity of his fare to the passenger, the latter is not obliged to pay.

To be sure, Tallinn is not leading the way in this crack-down. Last year, Vilnius introduced mandatory testing for all city taxi drivers. Remarkably, in addition to road manners, the qualifying exam tests drivers' knowledge of foreign languages and Lithuanian history (presumably so cabbies don't confuse Algirdas and Kestutis when debating Lithuania's medieval accomplishments to Polish businessmen). Companies with drivers who had failed to pass the text as of Nov. 1, 2005 risked having their license revoked.

This is a crack-down long overdue. If the Baltics are serious about attracting tourists 's and winning their hearts so that they return 's they would be wise not to forget what for many visitors is the first and/or last impression: taxi service. This is not to say that there are no honest cab drivers in the Baltics. Certainly there are, and in abundance. But it's a sad fact of life that, once the number of rotten apples reaches a certain point, the tree has to be chopped down and a new one planted.