Driving a taxi can be dangerous. Drivers look out for each other and have radios to call for help, but some in-car backup would be nice. Fortunately, CCTV can provide just the help drivers need. In this article, first published in CCTV Image in 2010, we went to Gravesend in Kent, home of one of the few taxi CCTV schemes in the UK, to find out more.
Just how dangerous it can be to drive a taxi is illustrated by the case of 71-year-old Gian Chand Bajar, a taxi driver based in Gravesend, Kent, who was murdered in May 2007.
At the conclusion of a trial a year later, Luke Aujila – a local man in his early 20s – was found guilty of murdering Mr Bajar by running him over with his own vehicle. Aujila, who admitted his was drunk at the time, had been attempting to avoid paying his fare.
Sadly, violence against taxi drivers is all too common. Working alone, at night, and picking up strangers who may be worse for drink and drugs leaves drivers extremely vulnerable to everything from verbal abuse and intimidation to robbery and assault.
Some drivers accept this as a hazard of the job while others take steps to protect themselves, including installing Perspex screens between the front and back seats and carrying personal attack alarms.
After the murder of Mr Bajar, there was a feeling that more had to be done to protect taxi drivers, so Gravesham Council in cooperation with Kent Police obtained a government grant to finance the installation of CCTV cameras in 150 licensed taxis.
With the funding, vehicle owners paid £97 for £720 worth of kit. On the basis that the kit was now affordable, the Council made installation of CCTV inside taxis a condition of the licence.
Glad to have it
Gordon Bailey is one taxi driver who appreciates the value of CCTV. In July 2009 he picked up a passenger from a pub at around 10.45pm. As he arrived at the destination, the passenger jumped into the passenger seat and demanded the keys to the car before punching Mr Bailey in the face.
The passenger – 23-year-old Mark Heanan – pushed Mr Bailey, 64, out of the car and began kicking and punching him in the head. Then Heanan took the night’s fares and fled.
Mr Bailey suffered fractures to his cheek bones and forehead and doctors said that one more kick to the head could have killed him.
Despite the severity of the attack, Mr Bailey has returned to work.
He praises the CCTV system which recorded the entire incident and provided vital evidence in the court case that resulted in Heanan receiving an indeterminate jail sentence with a minimum time to serve of 3 years and seven months.
“At the time it was installed, I didn’t want it, but now I’m glad to have it,” Mr Bailey told me in an interview in his taxi. “Without CCTV they would never have got him because it was dark when I picked him up.” Fortunately for Mr Bailey, the camera in his vehicle was fitted with infrared LEDs, enabling the police to get a clear image of his attacker.
Mr Bailey, who has been a taxi driver for 26 years, is no stranger to violence and intimidation. Despite the presence of the camera he was still badly beaten, but as he explained: “CCTV doesn’t stop it happening but you get a conviction.”
Another benefit of the CCTV images in his taxi was the fact that Heanan, having been shown the images of his crime, pleaded guilty, saving Mr Bailey the added burden of a trial.
And as Mr Bailey pointed out, in three serious attacks on taxi drivers since the camera programme began, the perpetrators were caught and pleaded guilty. As an added bonus, drivers have noticed a marked improvement in passengers’ behaviour.
Given successes like these, you might ask why other councils don’t copy Gravesend.
In-vehicle surveillance is a growth area, according to Niall Jenkins, senior research analyst at IMS Research. According to a recent IMS report, in-vehicle CCTV was enjoying double-digit growth before the recession started to bite.
“Vehicle owners who install CCTV tend to be guarding against false legal claims,” Mr Jenkins said. So far, he noted, insurance companies have not been offering significant discounts for installing CCTV, but this may change as they begin to see the evidence of its effectiveness.
In the taxi market specifically, installations tend to be driven by legislation, with driver-owners reluctant to spend anything unless it is absolutely required. He noted that Australia was one of the few countries where IMS had found the government was pushing taxi drivers to install CCTV through regulation and financial assistance.
Clearly when it comes to safeguarding taxi drivers, the UK lags behind Australia. As it emerged in my visit to Gravesend, this is one of only two councils in the country that are known to be requiring CCTV to be installed in taxis.
One can’t help but recognise that a major blocker to in-cab CCTV is the cost. The kit that Gravesend installed three years ago cost £720 including installation, according to Simon Lowndes, managing director of Video Vest, one of the two companies contracted by Gravesend to install the kit.
Video Vest installed a package of equipment comprising a mini-dome camera, hard disk recorder and a miniature dashboard mounted video monitor. Because the system is wired into the vehicle’s fuse board (so the system will start up automatically when the ignition is switched on) and there are wires to be run under the dashboard and back to the boot, it has to be installed by a qualified vehicle electrician which adds to the cost.
Gravesend was fortunate to receive a government grant and matching funding from the police and the council. In all it received £118,000 which helped over 150 taxi drivers get the kit.
On top of the cost is the resistance from taxi drivers to new technology.
Many of the drivers I spoke to admitted that if it hadn’t been a requirement of licensing, they would not have installed the kit even at the subsidised price. However, having benefited from its presence for the past couple of years they were equally adamant that they wouldn’t do without it now.
Apart from being assaulted, one of the worst things that can happen to a driver is to be accused by a female passenger of sexual assault.
As senior licensing officer Christine Hills explains, Gravesham Borough Council has to suspend a driver’s license as soon as an allegation is made. “In the year leading up to the installation of these cameras, Tim Worthington [public carriage officer for Gravesham BC] had to suspend four drivers, all of whom had allegations of sexual impropriety made against them,” she said.
“Eventually it was found that there was no foundation to the claims but meanwhile you had four drivers who had had to go home to their wives and say, sorry, we can’t pay the mortgage this month because I’ve got this allegation against me.”
The security of the tapes is of paramount importance to the credibility of the system. As Mr Lowndes explains, this is why the DVRs are locked in a box in the boot of the car. The only access to the system is with a remote control which is in the possession of Mr Worthington and the Kent Police taxi liaison officer, Chris Fuller.
Although the recording is safeguarded, one controversial element of the system is the recording override switch, says Mr Lowndes, explaining that the switch is there so drivers can, at their discretion, turn the camera off.
If there’s any doubt that this could be abused, Sgt Graham James, crime reduction officer for Kent Police says that there has never been a case which the police have investigated in which the relevant recording wasn’t available. And if it turned out that the system had been switched off, the onus would be on the driver to explain why it hadn’t been working.
Sharing the knowledge
Gravesham BC is keen to share its experiences with other councils who are considering going down the same route. They have hosted several delegations from other councils to explain what they did in Gravesend and what they would do differently next time.
Ms Hills and the rest of the team encourage councils to take an active role in promoting CCTV in taxis, even if they don’t have the means to fund it, if for no other reason than to encourage drivers to install good kit that is easy for the police to access.
“What is happening in Dartford is that drivers are going out and getting their own kit, which is laudable,” says Sgt James, “but it causes problems for us because of the various ways their systems can be set up. By the council not implementing a comprehensive system, it causes us more problems and I imagine that is the case up and down the country.”
Gravesham Borough Council has taken a big step in safeguarding the taxi drivers in their area, which appears to be much appreciated by drivers and the public alike. It remains to be seen how many other councils will follow their lead.