Shana Graham was lucky. When the Seattle public relations exec was visiting India a few years ago, she hailed an auto rickshaw—one of those three-wheeled taxis lacking both doors and seat belts—and immediately found herself careening wildly through the streets. Her requests to slow down fell on deaf ears. “The driver was clearly drunk,” she recalls, “and retorted, ‘You Westerners, you have too much fear!’” As they sped into a traffic circle, he called back, “Don’t worry! Be happy!” just before the rickshaw flattened, like a pancake, into a car.
Luckily, Graham walked away from the accident with only a few bruises. But it’s a reminder of how a five-minute trip across town can either be a joyride or a descent into chaos.
Sure, every place has its share of scary cab drivers, but some places are worse than others. Bangkok, for instance, topped the “most dangerous” list of a recent Hotels.com taxi survey (though the city’s cabbies also ranked as the fourth-most friendly). But the level of fright isn’t always because of a rickety tuk-tuk. Depending on the location, there can be a risk of robbery, or the horror when you realize that your driver isn’t watching the road but rather an episode of a reality show.
Granted, most travelers who get in a cab upon landing at an airport or walking out of their hotel get nothing but an uneventful ride. And Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, says that the industry is, for the most part, pretty consistent in the industrialized world.
He acknowledges, though, that there are some rough rides out there. “The variations come,” he says, “with the kinds of regulations that countries choose to implement.” Some countries have no regulations at all. In Lima, for instance, anyone with a car (or even a rental) can stick a taxi sign on the door and start picking up passengers—even if they have less of an idea where your hotel is than you do.
The scariest rides carry the threat of assault, robbery, or even murder. But usually the greatest threat one faces from a bad cab is getting taken for a ride in the financial sense. In almost every city around the world—including the U.S.—unlicensed cabs can try to gouge passengers with inflated fares. The risk isn’t just a high price, says LaGasse, but liability in an accident. “With an illegal vehicle you have no protection whatsoever. Even if the driver carries personal insurance, that won’t cover paying passengers.”
When in doubt about which cab to use, consider these tips from LaGasse. First, make sure the cab is licensed—“with a decal on the window or windshield and, generally speaking, a meter, though not always,” he says. To plan ahead, call your hotel before you start a trip, and ask them what to look for and what kind of fare to expect from the airport.
Other world travelers have their own survival tips. Greg Poschman, an Aspen-based director and photographer who travels a lot in the Third World, says he insists on seat belts and has even used nylon camera straps to rig his own. He also never sits in the front seat. “Behind the driver is safest,” he says, “as he will instinctively steer to save himself in a wreck.”
Sometimes, picking the right cabbie can actually bolster your security. When consultant Robert Longley was in Rio during the 1990s, he and his wife had a taxi driver take them to see the rainforest. “We got pulled over by a cop who wanted all of our money,” he recalls. “The taxi driver told him we were diplomats and that he would get into trouble if anything bad happened to us. The cop got on his motorcycle and left. We took our driver out for dinner that night.”