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Postcard from Europe: Technology overtakes Prague's taxi drivers

Taxi drivers in Prague have developed a reputation for ripping off customers. But a Czech IT firm has come up with a novel solution. Rob Cameron explains how in this Postcard from Prague.

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A taxi ride in Prague may not leave a good impression

Let's get one thing absolutely straight. The bad old days of mass taxi rip-offs are over. Long gone are the times when even long-term residents of this fair city - even Czechs themselves - feared for their wallet every time they opened the door of a cab. I speak fluent Czech and have been ripped off countless times as my cab driver took off on an erratic, seemingly random route to the airport, or the main station, or wherever.

One of my friends was ripped off on his wedding day. We spent half an hour arguing with the fleet of drivers who wanted vastly inflated sums for what should have been a simple trip from Prague's Old Town Square to a hotel in the suburbs.

Tales abound of semi-legal and completely illegal methods of ripping off customers - including special turbo boosters hidden under the steering wheel that could send a taxi meter spinning into the stratosphere at the touch of a button. According to one story, a driver even had the back seat rigged up to give electric shocks to passengers who refused to pay up.

CeBIT 2009 in Hannover

Modern technology might put the breaks on the city's rogue taxi drivers

No, it's just not like that anymore. Most taxi firms advertise their rates clearly on car doors, taxi stands, posters and websites. You can order cabs via sms, email, or by phone in English, German, French and many other languages besides. The notorious airport taxis which once fleeced incoming tourists with depressing regularity have been tamed and now offer standard prices to the city centre - at least the ones queuing directly outside the terminal building.

So the easiest way to avoid getting ripped off is to order a taxi beforehand using the methods outlined above. Hail one on the street, however, and that's another story. Unfortunately this is just how many people - especially visitors from cities such as London, New York or Berlin - get around. In Prague it can be a fateful mistake. The cobbled streets are still patrolled by hundreds of dodgy taxis preying on innocent victims, their owners little more than petty criminals with a cab licence.

Now a Czech IT firm, Et Netera, has come up with a method which could deal with even the most notorious abusers. It says it's developed a smart phone application that uses GPS to measure distance and calculate the proper fare. Called the 'virtual meter', the free app calls a cab from a list of approved firms, calculates the distance and displays the projected fare. All the customer has to do is sit back, watch the display, and enjoy the ride.

Et Netera says it's offered the system to Prague City Hall after one of its foreign business partners was ripped off in a cab. The application will make it possible to report offenders to the authorities on the spot, and even call a special City Hall helpline. Plans for a related Facebook page are also afoot.

The system would be a first in Europe. Then again, nowhere else in Europe do taxi drivers have such a bad reputation, although perhaps, as I've explained, that's no longer really justified. And who knows, if they can develop an app to uncover crooked cab drivers, maybe they can apply the same technology to the exchange offices which fleece thousands of tourists on a daily basis, as the city fathers look embarrassed and say "sorry, our hands our tied."

Author: Rob Cameron

Editor: Helen Seeney