An elderly cabbie drives his taxi in downtown Seoul. / Korea Times file
By Kim Tae-gyu
Jang Su-min, a 37-year-old office worker in Seoul, took a taxi at around 11 p.m. last week. She instantly felt relieved to see an old man with white hair was behind the wheel.
However, her euphoria was short-lived as the driver who Jang guessed was in his 70s seemed to struggle to understand what she said.
“When I got in the taxi, I felt safe because it was driven by an older man. As you know, I have heard of so many cases where taxi drivers did something bad to female customers, so I didn’t think that a man with white hair would do any harm to me,” Jang said.
“Yet I felt very nervous when he kept asking about my destination. I am not sure whether his hearing was bad or his memory was. Maybe both were. No matter what the reason, I was uneasy all the way home.”
Jang is not the only passenger choosing to take a taxi driven by “grandfather drivers” as the number of older people accounts for a large proportion of employees at domestic taxi companies.
According to the state-run Korea Transportation Safety Authority, the number of taxi drivers aged 70 or above was 774 in 2001 but the figure skyrocketed more than 10-fold over the past decade to over 9,000 this year.
In comparison, drivers aged 40 or less plummeted during the period to about 13,000 last year from some 75,000 at the beginning of the new millennium.
In other words, one out of 30 cabs is driven by 70- or 80-something and the proportion is expected to rise fast in tandem with the social trends in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
“First of all, people in their 70s and 80s account for a larger chunk of the population with the fast aging society. This would be the primary reason why senior citizen taxi drivers have increased,” a Seoul analyst said.
“Furthermore, a mounting number of retired people knock on the door of taxi firms since the job is regarded as one that does not have complicated requirements unlike other work.”
Korea is a rapidly-aging society. The number of people aged 65 or older reached 10 percent of the overall population of 50 million in 2009, and is likely to double in some 15 years.
Pros and cons
Koreans are split into two opposing camps regarding the participation of senior citizens in the taxi industry.
Those who love the so-called “grandfather taxies” claim they tend to drive more carefully than younger cabbies. In addition, their employment can reduce social security payments for the country.
Their rationale: Aged drivers usually do not step on the gas to pass other vehicles. Plus, the government does not have to spend a lot of money supporting them with taxpayers’ money because they earn themselves.
Unlike other segments, demand always outstrips supply in the market for taxi drivers. Hence, applicants can easily get into the business with merely a driving license.
The job has another attraction. When they do not record any accidents during three years at a company, they are eligible to run a privately-owned taxi.
“Currently, many taxies in Seoul are parked in garages because of the shortage of drivers. In this climate, retirees need to take the jobs for the benefit of other citizens,” said a 62-year-old taxi driver who asked not to be named.
“Young people should not be behind the wheel of taxies because this job does not have good prospects. This is a perfect fit for older people.”
In contrast, critics counter that they are too old to drive safely and they are vulnerable to crime.
Crimes targeting aged drivers grabbed the headlines of late as similar cases continue to take place in the capital.
During 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., the same criminal is believed to have threatened elderly taxi drivers five times in order to steal money over the past few months in Seoul.
Critics recommend that the Seoul administration should think of introducing an age cap for taxi drivers as in Japan.
나이든 택시기사 선호, 대한민국 자화상
서울에서 직장을 다니던 장수민씨는 최근 택시를 탔다. 그녀는 택시기사의 머리가 희끗희끗한 것을 보고 마음이 놓였다. 나이 드신 분이 악행을 저지르지는 않을 것이라고 생각했기 때문이다.
하지마 택시 기사가 행선지를 여러분 묻자 그녀는 불안해졌다.
장씨는 “귀가 잘 안들리는 것인지 아니면 기억력이 안좋은 것인지 행선지를 여러 번 물었다. 처음에는 안심이 되었지만 행선지를 여러 번 묻자 사실 집에 가는 내내 불안했다”고 했다.
관계자들은 나이든 택시기사가 많이 늘어나는 것이 대한민국의 자화상이라고 지적한다. 교통안전관리공단에 따르면 지난 10년간 70대가 넘은 택시기사는 10배가 늘어 9,000명 이상으로 늘어났다.
나이든 택시기사가 안전운행을 할 것이라는 예측도 있지만 운동신경이 쇠락해 교통사고가 날 확률이 높다는 지적도 있다. 그들은 우리도 일본처럼 운전기사의 연령을 제한해야 한다고 주장한다.