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.
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.