EYE ON CRIME: Cabs getting cameras

Drivers, owners, regulators approve safety measure for all taxis

Taxi drivers, owners and regulators agreed Tuesday to outfit Southern Nevada's taxicabs with security cameras, ending months of often-contentious debate.

That mandate, approved by a unanimous Nevada Taxicab Authority vote, requires cameras in all of the valley's roughly 2,000 cabs by April 1.

In February, the authority rejected a similar measure in favor of further study, leading pro-camera drivers to accuse owners and regulators of dragging their feet.

Since then, a cab driver was burned to death in a botched robbery, and the authority replaced two of its five board members while moving toward consensus.

"It is time to put this to bed," authority board chairman Richard Land said just before the vote. "Nobody on this board takes any pride in seeing somebody badly burned or shot."

"I don't think anybody should feel, either, that this is a cure-all for the entire industry," Land said. "As long as you have people who will jump over casino  cages to get to the money or do the other stupid things that happen out here, you'll have incidents."

Nonetheless, advocates believe surveillance will protect drivers by providing a deterrent to and evidence of crimes.

"It's bound to make it safer," said Art McClenaghan, a former driver and long-time camera advocate. "Will it be a cure-all? Of course not. But it's a huge step."

The decision came just over two months after the death of Pairoj "Paul" Chitprasart, 51, who was doused with gasoline and set aflame. He died four days after the attack.

James Scholl, 31, a homeless Las Vegas man, is awaiting trial on a murder charge.

McClenaghan believed momentum had been building to require cameras prior to Chitprasart's death.

Kim Kelly, whose father, Glenn, was murdered while driving a cab on New Year's Day 1971, thinks the latest killing was a tipping point.

"Unfortunately, it took a driver being set on fire to finally get everyone's attention," she told the authority. "The public, quite frankly, was tired of seeing it on the news."

The authority decision requires cabs to have cameras that automatically begin recording when a door is opened or closed, capturing images of the driver and all passengers. The images then could be downloaded onto laptop computers for viewing.

"If there's no crime, then that information is not downloaded or retrieved. Then it's taped over," said Brent Bell, chief executive officer of Whittlesea Bell Transportation, which has been testing cameras in five of its cabs in recent weeks.

"We have the product. It's installed; it's working," Bell said. "We've had drivers coming in on a regular basis asking when they're going to get cameras. We've gotten nothing but positive feedback."

Adopting a suggestion by Bell, the authority will allow images to be viewed only in the event of a robbery or other violent crime against a driver.

That appears to stem driver concerns that images could be used to invade the privacy of passengers and drivers alike.

The plan lets cab owners install video cameras that record continuous images or digital cameras that record a still image every 10 seconds. Audio recordings also can be made.

Passengers would be alerted to the monitoring system via informational decals, written in English and Spanish, that would be visible inside and outside cabs.

"A person that has a problem with a camera in a cab, I don't want to transport them, anyway," said Craig Harris, a steward with the Industrial Technical Professional  Employees  union, which represents most valley cab drivers.

The union had preferred digital cameras that do not record sound, but in the end chose not to be picky.

"Still or video, it doesn't matter," said Carl Tucker, another union steward. "We are just trying to stay alive in this industry."

The authority estimates that camera installations will cost up to $700 per cab, though one owner estimated it may cost almost twice as much.

At those prices, installation could cost the local industry a total of up to $2.6 million. Cab companies will bear the cost, but have strongly hinted they may later ask for a fare increase to cover the tab.

Owners hope that reduced insurance premiums  will make up most of the difference, negating the need for a fare increase.

In recent months, drivers, owners and administrators had been meeting to bridge concerns over how to implement a camera plan.

A pair of earlier driver's surveys showed overwhelming support for cameras, and a poll last month by the authority found similar support among tourists.

Of 662 people awaiting cabs at McCarran International Airport on Oct. 21-25, 636 said they would not seek another form of transportation if offered a cab recording both video and audio.

A Las Vegas College study said crimes against drivers fell as much as 30 percent in the first year of mandated cab cameras in selected American and Canadian cities.

Since Jan. 1, cab drivers have been the targets of 52 robberies and one slaying. Since 1970, 18 cabbies have been slain in the Las Vegas Valley, authority officials said.

Not all cab owners were happy. Jason Awad, owner of Lucky Cab Co., thought earlier studies were overly dismissive of other safety options, such as shields between the driver and passenger seats.

"You would be short-changing the public, the industry and the driver if you implement just one safety measure, the cameras," Awad said. "Why do we have to have this tunnel vision and have cameras only?"

Authority officials said they do not want to discourage companies from going beyond the mandate by testing or installing additional safety equipment.