Taxi group wants cameras in cabs to improve safety

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

A taxi group is pushing the government for the mass installation of closed-circuit television cameras in Hong Kong's cab fleet, a move it says will improve road safety and record bad behaviour but which could come at the cost of passengers' privacy.

The cameras, which come with 'black box' data recorders, have already been fitted to two taxis for testing. They are placed next to the rear-view mirror, one to record what goes on in the cabin, the other to film what happens in front of the vehicle.

Other transport operators already use cameras. Some MTR and KCR trains have them to monitor passenger cabins, as do double-decker buses. Some ferries have cameras for security and safety reasons. Taxis in Japan, Australia, the UK and parts of the US and Europe are fitted with cameras. And they are fitted to taxis in Beijing; the capital's fleet has voice recorders too.

While a small number of taxis are already fitted with external cameras, no taxi group has previously installed cameras in the cabin - despite a spate of taxi robbery incidents last year - for fear the public would reject them.

Some taxi owners are sceptical of the idea. They fear the risk of footage shot by cameras in the passenger cabin being leaked could put people - especially celebrities - off hiring cabs, and that that would hurt their business.

The Urban Taxi Drivers Association Joint Committee - one of the main driver unions, and the one behind the idea - said cameras would be secured in a metal box that only the security company supplying them, or the police, could open. Drivers would not be able to tamper with the images captured.

Ronnie Kong, of the devices' supplier, PD Asia, said video would be overwritten when the cameras' data cards were full, though particular incidents could be saved by the driver pressing a button.

But Ng Kwan-sing, chairman of another trade group, the Taxi Drivers and Owners Association, said there was always the risk of a security breach. 'If data protection was 100 per cent, Gillian Chung Yan-tung would not have ended up like now,' Ng said, referring to the Twins star's forced hiatus from show business after pictures of her involved in sex acts with singer Edison Chen Koon-hei were posted on the internet.

The Transport Department said the trade did not need prior approval to try out the cameras, but it must not breach any law, including the Privacy Ordinance. The privacy commissioner said he did not support fitting cameras in taxis but that the ordinance did not explicitly prohibit it.

The Urban Taxi Drivers Association Joint Committee wants the government and the commissioner to approve the fitting of cameras to most or all of the 18,000 taxis.

The group will meet police and officials from the Transport Department and Office of the Privacy Commissioner next month to present the results of its trial of the cameras.

The insurance industry believes installing the cameras would help clarify responsibility in road accidents involving taxis and would avoid unnecessary litigation. That in turn would mean lower premiums for third-party insurance for the trade. Premiums have surged from around HK$7,000 a year in 2008 to HK$18,000 now due to a jump in claims from road accident victims.

Taxi accident rates have fallen over the years, but the number of claimants has surged due to a boom in so-called no-win-no-fee legal services.

'If drivers behave with more restraint behind the wheel because they know they are being monitored, obviously there will be fewer road accidents,' said Peter Tam Chung-ho, chief executive of the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers.

Kwok Chi-piu, president of the joint committee, said the in-cabin cameras would help scare off robbers and provide evidence of crimes.

'There will be a sign outside the taxi informing passengers of the cameras, so they can decide whether they want to take the cab,' he said.

Kong, of the company supplying the cameras and black box, said the latter's sensor would automatically save recordings of unusual movements or vibration of the vehicle, such as a sudden increase in speed, an abrupt turn or a collision.

If the joint committee's idea wins approval, it may not be long before the devices gain popularity with owners and drivers. Each two-camera unit costs about HK$2,500, but the union is considering leasing the device to drivers. It is also inviting the insurance trade to offer insurance premium discounts to drivers who buy the device.