Why ‘rideshare’ must have security cameras like taxis

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance has a 10-year-old daughter. If she was 18 would he feel comfortable for her to use UberX after a night out? Not likely if he had read the ever increasing number of media reports of alleged rape, sexual assault or harassment perpetrated around the world by Uber drivers and of how many get off due to lack of evidence. More often than not, there is no evidence of who is telling the truth, the passenger or the driver. Mandatory security cameras in all point-to-point passenger vehicles would go a long way to fixing that. It has worked exceptionally well in taxis.

by Peer Lindholdt

Safety is No. 1 at Uber...so we make sure the system is in place so riders get the safest ride possible,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick claimed back in June 2014. Since then there has been a growing flood of allegations against Uber drivers for criminal offences especially against female passengers. Here is a small sample from the past 3 months:

Toronto 8 April 2016: “MORE UBER RAPE - Another Uber driver charged with sexual assault”.

Chicago 25 April 2016: “Female Uber driver sexually abused by drunken Florida man, prosecutors say”.

Ontario 26 April 2016: “Investigation underway after woman allegedly sexually assaulted by Uber driver”.

London 16 May 2016: “Uber drivers accused of 32 rapes and sex attacks on London passengers over the past year new statistics reveal”.

Melbourne 6 June 2016: “Uber driver verbally abused two gay female passengers”.

And the list goes on. There have been thousands of similar reports from cities around the world following the introduction of UberX. To get an idea of how endemic the problem is check out the Reported List of Incidents involving Uber and Lyft.

Western Australia was the first state to mandate cameras in city taxis (Perth) way back in 1996. NSW followed in 2000, Victoria in 2001 and the rest by 2005. In 2010 Australia was the first country in the world to have cameras in all its taxis, metropolitan, urban and country. Along the way regulators upgraded the specifications in line with technological advances – greater data storage, improved tamper proofing, sharper images. Today there is substantially less crime committed by and against taxi drivers than ever before, largely due to the deterrent effect of cameras. It is safer to drive a taxi and hire a taxi than ever before. Not so hire cars, which in the new legislation, are being lumped together with ‘ridesharing’ in the generic category ‘hire vehicles’. They are headed in the opposite direction.

Until around twenty years ago hire cars were imported luxury vehicles (limos) catering to a small elite. Most owners were also drivers and selected their co-drivers carefully to protect their expensive vehicles and exclusive client base.

However, in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics states began to deregulate hire cars. In NSW the government slashed HC licence lease fees from the then market rate of $16,000 to a set rate $8,200. No longer did HCs have to be luxury vehicles like Mercs, Jags and Chevs. The new benchmark was ‘long wheelbase’ e.g. you could now use a second hand Holden Statesman or a Ford Fairlane. Then in 2007 things changed again. Small hybrids like Toyota Priuses could now operate as ‘limos’. All about saving the planet. Fast forward to NSW 2016 and anything with 4 wheels and 4 doors, regardless of age, comfort and safety features, qualifies to be licenced as a hire vehicle or taxi. It’s become a race to the bottom.

In 2000 there were 700 licenced hire cars in Sydney, in 2013 that had increased to 1,500. Today, only 3 years later, there are an estimated 9,000, 7,000 of which are UberX minicabs, and that number is growing exponentially.

Until 2000 riding in a hire car was the safest form of point-to-point transport available - safer than driving your own car. Why? Because back then HC drivers were true professionals who knew their business depended on their safe driving skills, good manners and impeccable luxury cars.

The taxi industry didn’t have any such motivation. Its priority was to keep cars on the road 24/7 to maximise profits and meeting government imposed KPIs. It was all about bums on drivers’ seats at the expense of quality of both service and drivers, a warped culture that continues today.

Although back then taxis had ‘back-to-base’ security alarms, driving a cab was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Whether in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth, barely a day would go by without a cabbie getting robbed, bashed, stabbed or murdered. As for the safety of passengers, in particular of young women going home after a boozy night out, that was increasingly being compromised due mainly to the influx of a new breed of cabbies entering the industry – culturally challenged men, generally young, from third world countries, many of whom considered women not covered from head to toe as tarts and fair game, and if they were affected by alcohol or drugs, even more so.

Cameras haven’t entirely eliminated sexual assaults on women in taxis, but they were and are a major contributing factor in deterring them and putting perpetrators behind bars, especially after regulators upgraded their minimum camera specification to include rapid high-resolution imaging. Today’s cameras provide clear court-admissible evidence of misdeeds committed in a taxi. No such evidence is obtainable when similar incidents happen in a ride-share car.

However, in its wisdom, the NSW government, in its new Point-to-Point Transport (Taxi and Hire Vehicles) Act 2016 (P2P Bill), has scrapped its mandated standards and camera accreditation system and is leaving it up to the taxi service companies (networks) and booking services to determine what standard of cameras they will allow in their affiliated cabs.

“The [Sturgess] task force found that prescriptive regulatory requirements for taxis relating to security equipment not only had added to compliance costs but also had discouraged the industry from taking advantage of improvements in technology. The legislation will remove obsolete and prescriptive equipment specifications, allowing taxi service providers flexibility in meeting safety and security outcomes”, Andrew Constance said when presenting his Bill to parliament.

Why did previous governments find it necessary to establish minimum standards for taxi security cameras? And why did they mandate cameras in cabs in the first place? Because they knew that the taxi industry couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing without enforceable regulations. That hasn’t changed.

Yes, camera compliance costs are exorbitant at $4,000 plus per taxi. The reason is simply because the market is small and dominated by the major networks, which are keeping costs artificially high as they profit from sales, installation, maintenance and finance. Few operators buy their cameras these days though; instead they ‘rent’ them from their network and pay the rent with their radio fees. Removing regulation is unlikely to have but minimal impact on costs unless it is at the expense of functionality and quality i.e. safety.

What would reduce the price would be the government mandating cameras with the same regulatory requirements for all P2P passenger transport. It would provide economy of scale to manufacturers, greater competition and increased safety for both passengers and drivers regardless of which mode they choose.

It will still be mandatory for NSW taxis to have cameras, but not for ‘rideshare’ and hire cars. Apparently taxi drivers are considered more dangerous and in greater danger because we pick up anonymous hails. Whilst there is some truth in that it ignores the reality that due to the explosive growth of ridesharing it has become an opportunistic predator’s paradise.

Uber claims it is safe because it has the full ID of both its riders and drivers including bank account details and GPS tracking records of all its cars. On booking, the passenger receives a photo of the driver, his car’s model, rego number and first name on his/her mobile. As with most other booking apps the parties can communicate with each other on their smartphones and receive a detailed electronic receipt at the completion of the trip. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as the record shows.

All commercial point-to-point passenger transport modes pose an element of risk to both passengers and drivers. The bigger the number of drivers the greater the risk to vulnerable passengers. It’s the nature of the beast – strangers brought together in the confinement of a car away from prying eyes. Only a camera of the standard used by taxis can provide definitive irrefutable evidence of the interaction between a driver and his/her passenger(s) in the event a crime is alleged to have been committed.

Blinded by Uber’s bullshit our politicians are failing to protect both Uber passengers and drivers. •

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OZ Cabbie February 2017

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