A new piece of legislation [PDF] introduced late last month calls for a panic button to be installed in all New York City taxis, Ubers, and for-hire vehicles.
Sponsored by Brooklyn Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, the legislation calls for the installation of a button that would immediately connect a passenger in distress with the NYPD. A Cumbo spokeswoman said that the councilmember was particularly distressed by an incident that occurred this February—Boro Taxi driver Esa Alusaimi was charged with first degree rape after locking the doors on a female passenger in Fort Greene and raping her. He pled not guilty, but his license was subsequently suspended.
TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg told the Times that the commission would “review the legislation with great interest.” However, of the 200 million taxi rides that have occurred over the last 13 months, only 121 licensed TLC drivers have been written up for "use of threat or physical force." Statistics aside, “Once you step into a cab and the doors are locked, you are very much at the will of the driver,” Cumbo pointed out to the paper.
Uber recently added an SOS button to its app in India, in the wake of a rape case, and is rumored to have similar plans for America. An Uber spokesman said via e-mail that, "The SOS feature introduced in Delhi is just one example of an innovative safety feature that we will roll out in additional cities and countries in the coming months."
However, some taxi driver advocates have pointed out that while passengers may be in danger, driving a taxi isn't all that safe either (between 1998 and 2007, taxi drivers and chauffeurs were over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers.) From the Times:
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said that the bill would criminalize drivers, and that a passenger who was intoxicated or shuffling luggage could accidentally press the button.
Cumbo's proposal, which simply defines the panic button as a direct connect to the NYPD and calls on its installment in all for-hire vehicles, will be fleshed out more fully at a city council meeting later this month. For starters, Cumbo told the Times that she is hoping to acquire more accurate statistics on how many assaults occur in taxis, even though the "vast majority" of trips are safe.
Still, accurate statistics may be hard to come by—in part because loopholes muddle communication between Uber and the TLC. For example, earlier this month, a 31-year-old woman who fell asleep in her Uber cab allegedly awoke to find her driver touching her face. The driver did not have his license suspended, because Uber is not required to report allegedly abusive drivers to the TLC.