Cab recording under scrutiny 

Cab conversations are at the center of a “big brother” debate as video and sound recordings of taxi drivers and passengers are now as common as the meter tracking your fare.

In recent months, cab companies began installing devices to record not just still photographs as mandated by city law, but also audio and video footage, according to Mark Gruberg, spokesman for United Taxicab Workers.

The technology helps cab companies review traffic accidents, determine insurance judgments, and provides a crime deterrent for drivers. Many cabbies question whether the cameras are an invasion of privacy, Gruberg said.

“There is certainly a chilling effect for both passengers and drivers when they find out that everything said in the car will be recorded,” Gruberg said. “The cameras add a layer of security, but privacy concerns may trump that.”

New state legislation, set to go into effect in January, is aimed addressing those issues but also raises just as many questions.

The law would require that all video records stored by cab cameras be expunged, except for footage captured 30 seconds before a “triggering event” such as a crash or violent swerve. Such footage could be used to determine if the driver was at fault.

However, the new law is not clear about who can review the captured footage or how long it can remain in storage, according to Gruberg.

Rich Hybels, proprietor of Metro Cab, said that the Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages taxi operations in The City, told cab companies that the new legislation would ban cars from taking sound recordings, but not everyone agrees.

Recently, a patron of his company lodged a complaint against one of his drivers, and audio from the taxi exonerated the employee, he said.

Some cab drivers say the lack of audio equipment could put them in increased danger, while others say it could deter crime.

However, representatives from Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who sponsored the law, said there is nothing in the legislation that prohibits sound-recording devices. MTA spokesman Paul Rose said the agency is reviewing the legislation.

Fletcher said that the law was established so that taxi companies could use the footage as a driver teaching tool for new cabbies. As part of the law, drivers are allowed to receive a copy of the footage themselves, although the owner of the car (usually a cab company) also has ownership of the video.

City’s cabs

7,000: Registered cab drivers
34: Taxi companies
10: Dispatch companies
1,500: Current number of taxi medallions

Source: SFMTA

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Will Reisman

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