ABU DHABI // Taxi passengers with special needs can now travel by Dh250,000 Mercedes.
Six specially built taxi vans went into service yesterday, four in Abu Dhabi and two in Al Ain, and a further two will be available soon at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
The Mercedes-Benz Vito vehicles are equipped with hydraulic systems, an electronic wheelchair lift, secure wheelchair fastenings and a high roof. The taxis can accommodate four further passengers and their luggage.
"It has a very advanced system. We first tried three or four special-needs vehicles but they were not as specialised as this one," Hamad Al Mutawa, head of the licensing section at TransAD, the taxi regulator, said yesterday.
"This is what the market needs and we plan to increase the fleet based on the demand."
Twenty-four taxi drivers, eight of them women, have been trained to assist wheelchair users in and out of the vehicles.
Abdullah Al Saad, 29, a wheelchair user who tried one of the new taxis, was impressed.
"It's very comfortable and a luxurious vehicle," he said. "It does not have a low roof height, which I find comfortable, and it has a seatbelt and four safety clips to prevent the wheelchair from slipping on the metal platform."
Mr Al Saad, who works for the Department of Transport, suffered a spinal cord injury in a car crash in 2006.
He is unable to move his legs, but unlike other disabled people who may rely on a personal driver or taxis for transport around town, he drives his own car, which has hand controls.
"People have been asking about a taxi service dedicated for people with special needs," Mr Al Saad said. "Many find it difficult to move from one place to another and it's good that we now have these taxis in Abu Dhabi."
Nada Al Bustani, an Emirati who uses a wheelchair because of a birth defect, was concerned about what would happen if the electronic ramp broke down.
"How will I get out of the vehicle?" she said. "It's a very complicated contraption."
Ms Al Bustani, who is head of the quality assurance unit of the National Emergency Crisis Management Authority in Abu Dhabi, said wheelchair users would need to plan their journeys in advance to avoid missing an appointment.
"It will take 10 to 15 minutes to get on and another 10 to 15 minutes to get off," she said.
Jameela Al Hameli of TransAd said passengers were encouraged to book the special taxis at least 30 minutes in advance. Drivers could also assist passengers who required access to a building, she said.
The new taxis will be based at Marina Mall car park, Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs, Sheikh Khalifa Hospital and Mafraq Hospital or Khalifa City A.
TransAD say this will ensure they are accessible and readily available, enabling customers to reach their destination on time. "For example, if someone from Khalidiya requests a taxi, we can despatch the taxi from Marina Mall," Ms Al Hameli said.
"We are in a testing phase … to understand the people's needs and gauge the demand. We'll see how it goes and make the necessary changes."
A special-needs taxi can be booked through the call centre on 600 535353. Special-needs passengers receive a 50 per cent discount on the standard taxi fare.
Dr Ahmed Al Omran, an adviser to the Ministry of Social Affairs' department of welfare and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities, welcomed the implementation of accessibility guidelines contained in the federal law on the rights of individuals with special needs.
"For years, the Department of Transport in Abu Dhabi has been working on making public transport accessible to people with disabilities," he said.
"It is trying to implement the accessibility provisions on its public transport system, including future plans for the metro and tram to be fully accessible."