Graeme Page in his Nelson City Taxi that is equipped with a camera and a panic alarm. Photo: Charles Anderson.

Safety fears after taxi law change

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Rusty Smith knew something was wrong when her passenger refused to pay the final $6.

She had been a taxi driver in Nelson for 25 years and endured her fair share of grumpy punters. But three months ago, she had a sense that things were going to get violent.

Rusty’s passenger, who she had dropped off on Bridge St a few hours earlier, kept getting more aggressive. He refused to pay and then he shoved her up against the side of the taxi door and put his arm to her throat.

“He lifted me up and just smashed me. I usually look after myself but I knew I needed help.”

Rusty was only just able to reach the panic button down below the steering wheel

“For me at the time, I was just hoping it was working.”

The button goes direct to police and allows officers to hear everything going on in the cab.

“They were pretty worried.”

The button also put out an urgency call to the rest of the taxi drivers in the area. Within minutes drivers were there diffusing the situation.

“I’d hate to think what would happen if it wasn’t there.”

And thanks to the cameras in the taxi there is likely enough evidence to convict the man of assault.

However, new legislation that went into action this month makes these cameras and duress alarms optional rather than compulsory.

Taxi drivers believe that will put both their safety, and that of passengers, at risk.

The Land Transport Amendment Bill brings taxis, shuttles, private hire vehicles, and dial-a-driver services into a single category.

Former Transport Minister Simon Bridges argued the revised system would deliver benefits through increased competition and provide more flexibility to accommodate new technologies. The changes do away with area knowledge and English language tests, which Bridges said were redundant thanks to GPS technology.

The law also removes the requirement for all taxis to have in-vehicle recording cameras, introduced in 2011 after two cabbies were murdered in little more than a year.

Bridges said this was because new technology identified the driver and the passenger before anyone got into the vehicle.

However, Nelson City Taxi chairman Graeme Page says it is safety that will suffer. He says it looks like the government is making an exception to pave the way for Uber, a ride sharing service where cars are booked through a mobile phone app.

“A camera is there to protect both the driver and the passenger,” Graeme says. “If something goes wrong then it’s all on tape. This law is making it less safe.”

The camera automatically turns on whenever the taxi is turned on.

He hoped, however, that a change of government might mean the new Transport Minister would see common sense.

As for Rusty, she has no plans on leaving the job. She just wants to feel more comfortable in her work.

“And cameras certainly do that. Any measure to increase safety has to be good.”

Her assailant has been charged with assault and is currently going through the court system.