Sunday 19 February 2012

Cabby retirement age under review

LTA move comes amid calls by taxi body to let cabbies drive till age 75
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2012

CABBY Chua Yang Heng is dreading his 73rd birthday this year. By law, he must retire. But this could change.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) told The Straits Times this month that it is reviewing the age limit to hold a taxi driver vocational licence.

The review comes amid repeated calls by the 12,000-member National Taxi Association to let cabbies drive until they are 75 years old. The retirement age was last raised from 70 to 73 in 2006.

The association made its appeal three years ago but has lately pushed harder. It sought the support of President Tony Tan Keng Yam last August when he was still contesting the presidential election.

The issue was raised again this month during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's closed-door pre-Budget debate with the association.

Both leaders favoured allowing cabbies to go on driving as long as they were healthy, and their comments were carried by the media.

Currently, cabbies must pass a yearly battery of tests if they want to extend their vocational licence after age 70. The tests include a medical examination, an occupational therapist evaluation and an on-road driving test with an occupational therapist and a qualified driving instructor.

But they must give up their licences when they turn 73 - even if they pass the health checks with flying colours.

There is no such age limit on those who hold a normal driver's licence and they can keep on driving as long as they pass medical tests.

This year, 343 people licensed to drive taxis will hit the big 73.

At least 383 more are due to retire next year and 378 in the subsequent year, based on the number of taxi licence holders in their 70s as of last year.

Raising the retirement age would, in the longer term, cover more than 92,000 people who now hold taxi licences, although some of them may not be driving a cab for a living now.

The thought of retiring keeps Mr Chua awake. After being a cabby for 40 years, the widower dreads staying home alone with nothing to do in his son's five-room flat in Choa Chu Kang.

'It'll be very quiet. If I work, I can also earn $1,500 to $2,000 a month on my own,' said Mr Chua, who drives about 12 hours each day.

The LTA would not say if it was considering raising the age limit to 75, or how long the review will take.

But PM Lee gave the clearest indication yet at this month's dialogue that change could be on the cards. 'In principle, it is the right thing to do. You should keep working as long as you are fit,' he said.

Sharing a similar view, President Tan told reporters after a dialogue with cabbies last August that Tokyo and Hong Kong do not impose an age limit on cabbies.

When contacted, ComfortDelGro, the largest taxi operator here, did not want to comment on the issue.

Trans-Cab and SMRT, the two other major operators here, welcomed the proposal to raise the retirement age of drivers as long as they were certified fit to drive.

Some passengers and motorists, however, worry about the safety of older cabbies who must drive longer hours on the road than an average motorist.

Principal occupational therapist Chan Mei Leng of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which makes the elderly taxi driver assessments required by the LTA, said it is safe for people to drive beyond the age of 73 if they are medically fit. They must also show no impairment of driving-related abilities, such as vision and the ability to react in time, judge and plan.

All drivers regardless of age who drive long hours have to be aware of their endurance and level of concentration, she said. She recommended having enough rest, taking breaks, exercise, proper nutrition and drinking sufficient water.

On its part, SMRT encourages older drivers to have relief drivers so that they do not need to spend long hours on the road, said its taxi arm's director Tony Heng.

The company provides a service that matches them with relief drivers. It also has taxis with automatic transmission that are less taxing to drive, he said.

Mr Chua, who hopes the retirement age will be raised, keeps fit by eating less and sleeping early, at 8pm every day. And he takes a coffee break for every three to four hours behind the wheel.

'I can drive until I'm 79,' he quipped.

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