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Hailing the Ladies, Riga's feminine cab company

Anyone who has driven in the Baltics knows that many of the region's cars are powered by two chemicals: petrol and testosterone. It's dog-eat-dog on the roads, with speeding, insane overtaking and other macho maneuvers contributing to Europe's worst traffic fatality rates.

So the efforts of one company to put more women behind the wheel should be welcomed. Lady Taxi is a Riga outfit which only employs female drivers and is attracting a growing clientele thanks to this policy.

Rather than being a gender emancipation exercise, this is a business strategy - and one where men are part of the structure. Company director Normunds Nurks says the enterprise has grown from 12 cars at its inception in February 2007 to 19 today, with 32 drivers. Customers like being driven by a woman because they are perceived to drive more safely. Every car in the fleet comes equipped with child-safety seats, and busy mothers booking a taxi to collect their kids from school often don't want a man doing the job. And there are emotional issues too, Nurks believes.

"Women are always able to make conversation and people feel more comfortable in their company," he said.

But when it comes to hiring, practical skills count the most. Nurks, who drove a cab for 15 years himself, says potential drivers don't have to have experience in the industry. But the very first stage of the job interview is to sit them down behind the wheel and see if they can drive smoothly. Like countless other males, he observes that many women have trouble using turn signals properly, a sign of whether the candidate will be able to handle the multitasking required of a cabbie: talking to the client, planning the route, and keeping watch of the meter and GPS system.

"Women are women and you have to find the right approach with them, but we have a good team," he says.

Nurks says Lady Taxi is not based on similar firms in London and other Western cities, perhaps due to specific local problems. For example, several drivers have quit because their husbands don't like them doing what is perceived as a very low status job. Nurks expresses disgust at the personal hygiene of many male taxi drivers in Riga and their mechanically dodgy vehicles. He points out that currently all you need to drive a cab is a drivers' license. While the Riga City Council plans to introduce a permit system for cab drivers later this year, no one knows what it will cover. But hopefully it will help drive out dishonest operators.

"There are many drivers who cheat people, and foreigners are considered to be a special niche to be ripped off with higher tariffs," he admits. "But for us, all clients are equal, and while we may not have the lowest rates in Riga, our rates are fair."

While Lady Taxi is a step towards breaking down gender barriers, at least one of its drivers has entered the profession because of troubles with men. Natella Eglite used to be a kindergarten teacher, but a drinking and gambling husband left her finances in tatters. So after responding to an ad in the paper, she has been driving a cab since the beginning of 2008.

She scoffs at the perceived dangers.

"Men are always asking me 'Is it scary?' but I'm a night owl and usually go to bed at three or four in the morning anyway, so it suits me," she said. "Besides, there are fewer cars around at night, which is great."

Nurks says drivers have a confidential method for calling in security guards in an emergency. This is used once or twice a month for customers not wanting to pay or causing drunken trouble, but there have been no serious incidents thus far.

Eglite agrees with her boss that people want more from a cab driver than simply getting from A to B, and that here women have an advantage.

"Everyone likes to have someone to talk to, to have someone who listens, and I'm good at that" she said.

By Philis Birzulis