Taxi driving has always been a relatively dangerous occupation. Over the past few years, however, Auckland's drivers have had good reason to be increasingly fearful. At least 160 cabbies have been attacked in the region in the past five years, up from 60 in the period from 2000 to 2005.
The stabbing to death of Hiren Mohini in Mt Eden in late January for a $15.20 fare has proved the last straw for the Transport Minister, Steven Joyce. He is going to recommend to the Cabinet that taxi companies should have to install surveillance cameras in cabs that operate in the country's cities and large towns in time for next year's Rugby World Cup.
It is a moot point whether this is a matter that should require Government intervention. Such is the level of assaults on cabbies, often spurred simply by a desire to evade fares, that it might have been assumed taxi companies would have already taken the initiative. Any that did would surely have had no trouble attracting security-conscious drivers, some of whom say they are now too scared to work at night.
It appears, however, that the cost of cameras - usually between $1000 and $1500 each - and slim profit margins have been enough to stall action.
This reflects badly on an industry that is also blighted by a significant number of substandard operators. But it reflects well on Mr Joyce, who, in banning the use of cellphones while driving, has previously shown a willingness to act where there is an obvious need.
He has clearly been guided by the success overseas, notably in Australia, of cameras in cabs. In Perth, there was a 60 per cent reduction in attacks on drivers within a year of their being made compulsory in 1997. Cameras do not, however, represent a complete solution, and it is likely that other steps will be required.
The weakness of cameras is that they do not necessarily prevent attacks. Their strength lies in the improved apprehension of offenders. They are certainly a useful deterrent, particularly if cabbies adopt the practice of telling troublesome passengers that they are on film. However, an estimated half of the assaults on drivers are alcohol-related. Some drunks will be too impaired to notice the cameras, let alone regard them as a deterrent.
Mr Joyce has said the Government will also consider the mandatory fitting of protective screens. They represent an obvious supplementary step. Some drivers, however, seem to be in two minds about them. They say screens limit communication between driver and passenger, and create problems for air-conditioning systems. The latter seems hardly a concern, given that most attacks occur at night. The former may be more of a worry for those who value interaction, particularly if it leads to the securing of a tip.
Either way, driver security should surely be the paramount factor. Screens work because they prevent attacks. This has been shown overseas, especially in the United States. The reduction in assaults in Boston after their introduction was said to be as high as 70 per cent, while Baltimore reported a 56 per cent drop. But because of the unease of some drivers about them, it seems reasonable that their fitting should be optional.
Cabbies can also take other steps. One is carrying minimal amounts of money and having a cashless fare policy. Better training would also help. But perhaps the English have come up with the ultimate answer - a specifically designed taxi.
As it is, the local industry is starting from a long way back in addressing driver security. Its response has been tardy. Certainly, it is in no position to quibble about Mr Joyce's refreshing willingness to initiate decisive action.