The number of licensed taxi and hackney drivers fell for the first time in three years last year as the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in over 1,200 fewer working in the industry.
New figures published by the National Transport Authority show the number of small public service vehicle (SPSV) driver licences at the end of 2020 stood at 26,105 – an annual decrease of 4.5% - despite the issuing of 854 new driver licences by gardaí last year.
It brings the net reduction in the number quitting the industry over the past decade to around 12,400 – a decrease of 32%.
The NTA figures indicate the sector could be facing another period of contraction as 641 drivers allowed their licences to lapse permanently last year, while another 6,200 have been inactive for over 12 months. Another 163 drivers surrendered their licence in 2020 - a three-fold increase over the previous year.
The industry also seems to have a difficulty in attracting young new drivers into the profession as almost two-thirds of all taxi drivers are aged 50 years or older with only 1% under 30 years. The industry is also heavily concentrated in Dublin with 57% of all taxi drivers based in the capital.
The associated reduction in the number of vehicles operating as taxis and hackneys was even more pronounced as the number of SPSV vehicle licences dropped by almost 10% in 2020 with the national taxi fleet falling below 20,000 for the first time in over a decade.
A total of 19,352 SPSV vehicles were operating in the Republic at the end of last year – 2,059 fewer than in 2019.
While the size of the national taxi fleet had been falling steadily since 2008 due to a combination of higher vehicle standards, driver testing requirements and reduced customer demand, the number of licensed vehicles had been rising since 2017.
The NTA acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic had a “devastating impact” on the taxi industry due to the persistent closure of the hospitality and travel sectors and the widespread transition to remote working. It noted that there has also been ongoing “behavioural shifts” among commuters towards walking and cycling.
The latest figures also show a steep decline in the number of new entrants to the sector with just 568 new vehicles licensed last year – less than half the total of new licenses issued in 2019.
While a NTA spokesperson acknowledged the 4.5% decrease in licensed SPSV drivers in 2020, it claimed the figures were “broadly reflective” of the numbers working in the industry in 2017 and 2018.
The spokesperson pointed out that numbers applying for the driver entry test which is required to obtain a licence now exceeds levels in February 2020. The NTA claimed this indicated continued interest by people in entering the taxi industry.
Following the introduction of a grant scheme by the Department of Transport three years ago to encourage taxi drivers to switch to electric cars, the number of sustainable vehicles in the national taxi fleet rose from five in 2018 to 78 by the end of last year.
The NTA said it maintained compliance operations on SPSV drivers throughout 2020 with 14,000 vehicles – 72% of the national fleet – subject to checks.
A total of 494 drivers were hit with on-the-spot fines as a result of such checks – down from 1,600 the previous year – which the NTA said was reflective of the impact of the pandemic on the industry and passenger demand. A quarter of all fines were due to drivers failing to notify details of the vehicle being operated to the NTA.
The NTA also initiated 114 prosecutions last year for breaches of SPSV legislation with 87 cases relating to the failure to hold either a valid driver or vehicle licence with three prosecutions for overcharging.
The number of complaints made against taxi drivers also dropped by 66% last year to 466 – down from 1,383 in 2019 which was the highest total in the past decade. The NTA said 43% of complaints resulted in the driver being issued with a fine, warning, advice or summons for prosecution, while 49% warranted no further action.
Another 4% of cases were referred to other agencies - including An Garda Síochána, Revenue and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection - while 4% of complaints remain ongoing.
Driver behaviour was the most common source of complaint last year, accounting for 44% of all cases with 41% relating to fares.