I was munching on a carrot in my cab, number two on the Manuka rank. Reading Further Tales of the City and just chilling.
So I was surprised when a passenger opened the door and got in. "What about him?" I asked, indicating the cab ahead.
"I didn't want to wake him up," she said, and gave me a destination on the further side of the city, an easy forty dollar fare.
I take the position that if a cabbie is asleep on a rank - especially at five in the afternoon - then he's too weary to drive safely.
Sleep management is an important part of a cabbie's life. The average rate per hour is so low that if a cabbie wants to make serious money, he's got to drive serious hours. In theory, I drive a thirteen hour shift each weeknight, and other drivers, especially those who own their own cabs, will drive even longer hours to make the money needed both to pay the huge costs of operating a cab and make some sort of living.
While a cabbie's shift isn't continuous driving, and it's a sight more interesting than the highway driving of long-haul truckers, it's still a long time to be awake and alert. A good cabbie, even if he's not actually driving, will be waiting for somebody to walk up and get in, or for the chime of an incoming radio job. He'll be watching the stats screen to work out where the work patterns are flowing best, and he'll be cleaning the windows or shaking out the floormats when there's nothing else to do.
Or he'll be chatting to other drivers, reading a book, doing the crossword puzzle, listening to the cricket... There's a lot of idle time in a cabbie's life.
What he shouldn't be doing is sleeping. Other cabbies will take his passengers, he'll miss out on radio jobs, he'll lose income.
In an ideal world, a cabbie gets eight hours of good, solid sleep, drives his twelve hour shift, and has four hours left over for recreation. Not much of a life, but, as I always tell the passengers, "It beats working!"
In the real world, it's hard to get a solid chunk of uninterrupted sleep, especially for a night cabbie like myself. There's the unavoidable noise and activity of the rest of the family waking up and going to work or school. There are traffic noises, horns honking, construction vehicles rumbling. There are phone calls. In summer it's hot, and there's always the problem of too much light seeping around the curtains.
I'm lucky if I get three hours of sleep in a row. I'll take a nap in the early afternoon before starting work at three, but somewhere around midnight, I'll be running down. With the last planes landed at the airport and streets full of cabbies competing over the last few fares, it's an ideal time for me to take a nap before joining the die-hard taxidrivers serving the empty city. There's always work around at two in the morning on a weeknight. You might have to drive a bit further to pick up a passenger, but in a city the size of Canberra with a floating population of students and parliamentary staffers and public servants staying a few nights for a course or a convention, there's always someone in the wee hours who needs to go somewhere.
I don't pump myself full of energy drinks or pills to stay awake. I know other cabbies do, and I've tried some of those pills many years ago, but it's an artificial alertness, and while the body stays awake, hands gripping the steering wheel, the mind goes off in strange directions. I know that everyone expects cabbies to be a little bit crazy, but I don't want artificial assistance in that direction.
But I can't drive when I'm tired. I start making mistakes. I'll give out the wrong change, I'll take an inefficient route, I'll miss out on fares. And, worst of all, I'll drive in an unsafe fashion. There are only so many traffic lights you can misjudge, only so many Stop signs you can roll through, only so many Give Way signs you can ignore.
Or I'll begin to microsleep.
When that happens, I'll stop work and take a nap immediately. I usually stop well before I get to that point, but sometimes when the flow of work on a busy night doesn't give a natural break, I'll find myself whipping down the Monaro Highway, long and straight down to the far suburbs of Tuggeranong, with eyes that don't want to stay open.
I've got my own private map of quiet little corners of the city. Dark and deserted at midnight. Parks, sporting fields, carparks. What I need is something off the streets, not too much light or noise. I'm lucky in that Canberra has many such places. In fact there are four excellent carparks right in the middle of the Parliamentary Triangle in Federation Mall that are dark and deserted. Telopea Park and Haig Park have some good spots. But there's always somewhere.
I park the car facing my best exit route, I lock the doors, turn off as many lights and displays as I can, crank the seat right back and zonk off. Even a five or ten minute powernap is good, but sometimes I'll doze for an hour. I don't set any alarm, because I figure that I'll wake when I feel rested.
Usually what happens is that I get woken up by an incoming radio job after fifteen or twenty minutes. I can ignore it if I want, but generally I take the job and get back to work, good to go for those last few hours before I hand the car over to the day driver at four in the morning.
An alternative strategy, one my wife prefers, is that on a slow night I finish early. Like most other night cabbies. Trouble is that if every cabbie did that, then there would be no taxis on the streets to cope with the small demand at that time, let alone the unexpected load of a delayed flight or a late bus or a big function going late. There are always people to be shifted around the city and it is at these times that I feel most useful, saving people a long wait or a long walk. And making myself a few quid getting them home safely and comfortably.