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October 19, 2005

Vegas Cabbies Embrace Surveillance, New Yorkers Balk



Courtesy of TechWeb News

While New York taxicab drivers are fighting new requirements to install GPS, drivers in Las Vegas are embracing an older surveillance technology.

After resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, debate in the state legislature, and some hesitation on the part of cab company owners, Nevada State Attorney General Brian Sandoval issued an opinion stating that passengers cannot expect privacy when they are entering and exiting taxicabs. That clears the way for the Nevada Taxicab Authority to draft new regulations requiring cameras.

The authority, which regulates cab companies Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, is expected to work out glitches of an earlier proposal within the next several weeks. To protect the tourism motto: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," they are likely to ban dissemination of the images except in law enforcement investigations.

Most area cab drivers support the measure, and officials estimate that half of the 2,000 cabs on Clark County roads have already installed the equipment.

"Some wanted to wait until the regulations were in place," Public Information Officer and Investigator Rob Stewart said during an interview Wednesday. "Others didn't want to spend money on cameras with audio until they knew whether audio would be excluded."

Sandoval settled that issue for now by issuing an Oct. 6 opinion answering concerns over an ACLU challenge. The ACLU has vowed to continue fighting the requirements in court.

A few drivers who initially opposed the plans -- because some companies wanted to use the surveillance as a management tool -- have come around. Last year, one of their own was burned to death in a robbery attempt.

"Our purpose was to prevent some crime, and the ones we can't prevent, we can catch them," Stewart said. "It does look like crime stats have been going down."

Steward said that in the past year, as the state has grappled with the idea of adding cameras and several companies went ahead and installed them, there were 19 armed robberies in cabs compared with 64 the previous year. Homicide dropped from one to none. Authorities captured at least two men after on-board cameras captured images of taxicab thefts in progress.

About 400 cars are equipped with DriveCam Inc. systems, Valerie Chereskin a media contact for the company said in an e-mail interview Wednesday. The systems record unsafe driving events so managers can counsel their drivers.

A few hundred yellow cabs and thousands of livery cabs in New York City have cameras, according to information from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Some installed cameras as part of a prior exemption to rules requiring partitions, but most of the city's 12,760 yellow cabs have partitions for safety. No yellow cab driver has been murdered on the job in New York City since 1997, according to information from the taxi and limousine commission.

Earlier this month, drivers protested new technology requirements that would bring GPS or wireless technology that can record trip information.

Drivers said they were afraid the technology could be used to infringe upon their civil liberties, but Taxi and Limousine officials maintain that the new technology would be for convenience only. For instance, it could help with lost and found items and convey updated traffic information. It could also direct drivers to locations where large groups are exiting and looking for transportation. Before deciding on a particular technology, cabs in New York City will conduct tests.

In Las Vegas, one company voluntarily installed GPS and discovered that the system could only narrow the location down to the city level. Even specific street addresses wouldn't have helped police catch suspects during a period with a surge in robberies, Stewart said.

"We had it where one guy did 14 in a month and we had physical descriptions all day long, but they just didn't help," Stewart said.

Nevada taxicab authorities considered partitions but that didn't go over well in the Southwest.

"The drivers objected, saying it might cut down on tips because it would cut down on contact," Stewart said. "They also felt like if all the air conditioning ducts were in the front of the car, people are going to burn up."

Nevada hasn't proposed installing cameras outside of the Las Vegas area because local governments issue taxicab rules in rural towns and counties. Stewart estimates that there are a total of 200 cabs outside the authority's jurisdiction.

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