THOUSANDS of taxi commuters stand to lose out on Road Accident Funds because taxi operators remove seat belts from their vehicles.
The countrywide practice also undermines the government's multi-million rand taxi recapitalisation programme, which makes it compulsory for taxis to be fitted with safety belts.
Already two victims of a taxi accident are facing difficulties claiming compensation because they were not wearing seat belts.
They were seriously injured when they were flung out of a Toyota Quantum a year ago.
Their lawyer, Maditsi Mphela defended his clients, saying they were not at fault but the taxi operators who disabled these safety features.
"My clients told me that the seat belts were hidden away. I then jumped into a couple of taxis myself to verify this," Mphela said.
A Sowetan team hopped into several taxis operating around Gauteng and found that though these vehicles were fitted with safety belts, some operators had placed them out of reach by either locking them on to the head-rests or rolling them up underneath seats.
Gene Mawasha, whose taxi travels between Soweto and Johannesburg, admitted to locking seat belts into head-rests.
"Other drivers put them away because they keep passengers from jumping off quickly. Now that you have made me aware I will put them back," Mawasha said.
Gauteng department of community safety spokesperson Sizwe Matshikiza said he was not aware of the practice.
"We would not hesitate to move against any infringement. Those whose vehicles are found to have been tampered with face possible fines and could even have their vehicles barred from operating,"
The practice seems to be particularly rife among long-distance taxis operating between Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Lucky Xulu, who manages the Pretoria-Johannesburg route, said most commuters did not use safety belts.
"But you are right ... we have a duty to encourage the use of seat belts rather than hiding them underneath the seats," Xulu said.
Mphela warned that passengers who don't use safety belts could have their RAF compensations reduced by up to 30 percent.
"The current legislation says that not wearing a seat belt constitutes contributory negligence, hence the slashing of compensation by such a huge amount," Mphela said.
But another operator, Boet Mazibuko, blamed commuters. "We put the seat belts away because passengers don't want to use them anyway," he said.