Cheap rides, high price?

‘If you’re drunk or alone, get a cab, it’s safer.’ Amanda Cropp in­ves­ti­gates whether that age-old ad­vice is still true and finds con­cerns about safety are ris­ing in the age of new travel op­tions like rideshare com­pany Uber.

Sunday Star-Times - - BUSINESS -

Uber’s driver guide­lines are quite ex­plicit – no flirt­ing, no touch­ing, no overly per­sonal ques­tions or ag­gres­sive ges­tures, no sex­ual com­ments and def­i­nitely no sex with cus­tomers.

Last year a law change trans­formed the taxi in­dus­try, spark­ing an ex­plo­sion in rideshare oper­a­tors such as Uber and Zoomy, and it’s es­ti­mated there are now be­tween 8000 and 9000 cars for hire on our roads.

While pas­sen­gers revel in lower fares and the abil­ity to track a cab’s ar­rival on their smart­phones, there’s de­bate over whether the changes have low­ered stan­dards.

Some ar­gue dereg­u­la­tion went too far in re­lax­ing the re­quire­ment for cab se­cu­rity cam­eras, let­ting in cow­boys who flout the rules, and com­pro­mis­ing cus­tomer safety.

Cases un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the New Zealand Trans­port Agency (NZTA) in­clude that of a Nel­son taxi driver who was ticked off by po­lice for try­ing to cud­dle a woman pas­sen­ger, then left the coun­try af­ter an­other fe­male cus­tomer re­ported he had sex­u­ally as­saulted her.

Uber de­clined to say how many com­plaints have been made about its 4000-plus New Zealand driver-part­ners, but is clearly sen­si­tive to safety is­sues.

It has just in­tro­duced an emer­gency as­sis­tance but­ton so users can call 111 from the app, and an­other new fea­ture al­lows rid­ers to share trip de­tails with up to five trusted con­tacts.

Uber also em­pha­sises that real-time cus­tomer feed­back and a 24-hour ‘‘in­ci­dent team’’ means it quickly re­sponds to prob­lems and locks out mis­cre­ant driv­ers.

Auck­land’s Help cen­tre for sex­ual abuse sur­vivors has re­ceived six com­plaints about taxi and rideshare driv­ers over the past three months, rang­ing from women who were propo­si­tioned to those who were in­de­cently as­saulted.

Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Kathryn McPhillips says it’s hard to know if the prob­lem is in­creas­ing, or if it’s just that more peo­ple are us­ing this form of trans­port.

In her view, taxi driv­ers who be­have badly sim­ply re­flect at­ti­tudes found in wider so­ci­ety.

‘‘The world be­lieves young women are fair game, if you’re drunk you’re even more fair game.’’

McPhillips likes the idea of DriveHer, a fe­male-only rideshare ser­vice start­ing in Auck­land in De­cem­ber, and there’s a sim­i­lar one al­ready un­der way in Welling­ton.

‘‘There are many won­der­ful male taxi driv­ers out there, but these guys who as­sault peo­ple are just ru­in­ing it for all of them.’’

DriveHer founder Joel Rush­ton has re­cruited 30 women driv­ers and hopes to ex­pand to Christchurch, Welling­ton, and Tau­ranga.

The ser­vice will only carry men if they are trav­el­ling with a woman and sit in the back seat.

Rush­ton says DriveHer cars will have a logo on the back so cus­tomers don’t ac­ci­den­tally get into the wrong ve­hi­cle, which hap­pens with Uber be­cause cars are not marked.

‘‘Peo­ple can take ad­van­tage of sit­u­a­tions like that, and prob­a­bly most of the time they don’t, but some­times they do.’’

With the pass­ing of the Land Trans­port Amend­ment Act, shut­tles, taxis, and rideshares are all classed as small pas­sen­ger ser­vice ve­hi­cles.

Li­cence ap­pli­cants must be fit and proper per­sons, rul­ing out those with con­vic­tions for se­ri­ous crimes and driv­ing of­fences, a his­tory of un­paid traf­fic fines, be­havioural prob­lems or past com­plaints re­lat­ing to trans­port ser­vices..

Al­most 17,600 peo­ple cur­rently hold small pas­sen­ger ser­vice ve­hi­cle ser­vice li­cences (not all are ac­tively in use), and over the three years to the end of 2017, the NZTA sus­pended or re­voked 1058 li­cences on the grounds that hold­ers failed the ‘‘fit and proper’’ test.

Bob Wilkin­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Blue Bub­ble Al­liance of 16 taxi com­pa­nies, says the bar has been set too low, let­ting in oper­a­tors with­out the where­withal or the will to do a proper job.

‘‘You’re get­ting in­stances where peo­ple phone up to lay a com­plaint with a taxi com­pany, and the only per­son who will take the call is the per­son they’re com­plain­ing about.’’

Larger com­pa­nies can af­ford to sub­scribe to a NZTA data­base which alerts them if a driver has his P (pas­sen­ger) li­cence sus­pended or re­voked.

Wilkin­son also be­lieves smaller oper­a­tors tend to ‘‘flick on’’ prob­lem driv­ers with­out re­port­ing the kind of im­proper be­hav­iour that would see NZTA take them off the road.

But what re­ally irks him was the de­ci­sion to make in-cab se­cu­rity cam­eras op­tional for oper­a­tors in smaller cen­tres and for those ac­cept­ing rides pre­booked through apps such as Uber.

‘‘I think ev­ery small pas­sen­ger ser­vice ve­hi­cle should have a cam­era, end of.

‘‘I’ve never ac­cepted that small-town thing ei­ther – if it’s good enough for Christchurch, why not in Ti­maru? – you have your bad eggs down there as much as up here.’’

Taxi Fed­er­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor John Hart agrees, and he has lob­bied Trans­port Min­is­ter Phil Twyford for a re­view of the new laws and the re­in­state­ment of com­pul­sory cam­eras.

Hart dis­misses sug­ges­tions the taxi in­dus­try is suf­fer­ing a bad case of sour grapes and says they can live with the in­creased com­pe­ti­tion, ‘‘but these things are mat­ters of pub­lic safety’’.

Ben Unger, a di­rec­tor of New Zealand-owned rideshare app Zoomy, also has reser­va­tions about the ex­tent of dereg­u­la­tion.

‘‘We op­er­ate within the law, how­ever it’s pos­si­ble to do it out­side the law, and that’s where the reg­u­la­tions per­haps need more teeth.’’

The taxi in­dus­try is ques­tion­ing whether dereg­u­la­tion has gone too far and is com­pro­mis­ing cus­tomer safety.


Christchurch taxi driv­ers protested out­side MP Nicky Wag­ner’s of­fice over a Na­tional Gov­ern­ment pol­icy which led to rideshare apps tak­ing work off them.

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