Drivers who use social media to offer illegal “lifts for cash” and passengers who solicit the service are putting themselves at risk, Bendigo’s taxi operator has said.
Ride-sharing groups are prolific in Bendigo, with a search of Facebook uncovering five groups operating in the city with as many as 1600 followers each.
The most popular group, Bendigo Lifts 4 Cash, saw a dozen drivers offering their services in the 12 hours before Monday morning.
But Bendigo Taxis manager Colin Wells said while a taxi’s location was constantly monitored for driver and passenger safety, the whereabouts of “lifts for cash” vehicles could not be traced.
The lack of regulation means Bendigo Lifts 4 Cash drivers are taking safety into their own hands, using their Facebook page to discuss how to protect themselves.
One person wrote: "I Always keep a sharp object next to my seat."
Another said she intended to buy a pocket knife, and explained her passenger door did not open from the inside, so passengers could not "do a runner".
While Victoria Police Sergeant Greg Gentry said illegal ride-sharing was not something that had required a “significant response” from his staff, he reminded the public that carrying a weapon for the purpose of protection was an offence and cautioned road users to take care when choosing with whom they travel.
“We know nothing of their vehicles, of their qualifications, or the criminal history,” Sergeant Gentry said.
“As a parent of a kid out at nightclubs, if I found out my daughter was doing that, I'd be furious, because it's not safe.”
Mr Wells also said insurance companies would not cover the cost of damage or medical treatment in the event of a crash if the driver and vehicle were not accredited.
“If you do anything outside of your policy, like accepting fares, then you’ve got no insurance for the driver, for the vehicle, for the passenger if they are hurt,” he said.
Mr Wells was frustrated ride-sharing groups were not held to the same standards of professional practice as his taxi drivers; the Taxi Services Commission has conducted three snap inspections of his fleet in the past six months, a process “lifts for cash” drivers could evade.
Inequity between the two classes of driver extended to how drivers pick up passengers, he said, with taxis waiting for weekend party-goers at the McCrae Street cab rank while illegal operators pull up directly outside nightclubs.
“Taxis are not allowed to tout for business but these guys are right out the front of the clubs, and nothing gets done about it,” he said.
Mr Wells implored the Taxi Services Commission and Victorian government, including Bendigo MP and transport minister Jacinta Allan, to crack down on illegal ride-sharing.
“We thought we would get some reasonably high visibility considering the minister for transport who controls all this is our local representative,” he said.
But taxi operators’ concerns were not being heeded, he said.
"It's no different to a neighbourhood that has issues with hoon behaviour wanting to see the police turn up, and lobbying so they do," he said.
"But we don't seem to have any clout," he said.
The TSC has previously reprimanded local drivers, with one member of Bendigo Lifts 4 Cash sharing a letter she received from the regulatory body last July on the Facebook.
The letter outlines any vehicle operating for hire or reward must be authorised to do so by the TSC, with offenders subject to $3000 fines.
Another $1800 fine can be applied to drivers without taxi accreditation.
The TSC was contacted for comment.