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Uber panic button: on paper for safety, but in the car only for show

PAINTED IN RED, the panic button is a crucial safety feature in vehicles used to transport passengers. Mandated by a notification following the rape in New Delhi of a passenger by an Uber driver, this button, intended to be installed in all commercial passenger vehicles – taxis and buses – should trigger an alert to the police even when passengers do not cannot access or operate their smartphones to make emergency calls or use in-app security features.

But nearly eight years after the rape, those panic buttons may not be of much use, at least in the nation’s capital where about 11,000 vehicles have them.

Uber’s own infrastructure exemplifies this gap between regulation and practice. The Indian Express made 50 Uber rides in Delhi in a month and found no working panic button in 48 of them.

Instead, he found a monitoring system hampered by problems – including an unresolved software ‘integration glitch’ that prevents the nodal transport agency, which receives taxi alerts, from transmitting them immediately. to the Delhi Police.

Consider this:

— Of the 50 Uber taxis, only seven had active panic buttons. In five of these seven cases, pressing the button resulted in no follow-up action by Delhi police despite waiting 20 minutes.

— In 43 cabins, 29 had no alarm button at all. Drivers of 15 of the 29 cars said they purchased the vehicles in Haryana and UP with certificates of fitness although the Union Road Transport Ministry notified the use of panic buttons in 2016. The remaining 14 have said they bought their cars before 2019, the cut-off year from which these buttons became mandatory.

— Among the others on the list of 43, four drivers said their cars’ panic buttons were broken by their own children; three said they disabled the button to prevent passengers from pushing it out of curiosity. And seven drivers said the buttons stopped working after carrying out repair work.

That’s not all – and it’s not just Uber.

HOLES IN THE SYSTEM

On November 28, 2016, following the Uber rape case and the Delhi government’s months-long ban on the taxi aggregator, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways issued a notification stating that all public service vehicles except two-wheelers, three-wheelers and e-rickshaws must be equipped with a VLTD and a panic button (see box).

On April 18, 2018, the ministry issued another notification specifying a deadline and stated that all such vehicles registered on or after January 1, 2019 will be equipped with this combined safety feature.

Once the panic button is pressed, an alert is sent every five seconds to servers monitored by the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System (DIMTS), the nodal agency of the Ministry of Transport, to be instantly relayed to the emergency response system. Delhi Police Emergency (ERSS) out of 112. But officials said alerting the police has been “a time-consuming process” so far due to a “lack of software integration between the two systems”.

“Currently, when we receive a panic button alert from a taxi, we call the relevant police station, who relay the details to the PCR van. A lot of time is wasted determining the correct jurisdiction,” said a transport official.

According to the Delhi Statistical Handbook 2021, the capital has an estimated registered fleet of 1,12,401 private commercial taxi vehicles. Delhi’s transport commissioner, Ashish Kundra, said 11,832 registered commercial taxis after 2019 were fitted with VLTDs and panic buttons in the capital – and the alerts can be accessed via a web app.

“However, for carrying out the Panic Alert integration with the PCR 112 system, the document and API (Application Programming Interface) credentials are obtained by the Department of Transportation from the Sub -police commissioner (operations and communication). The integration is at an advanced stage and should be completed within a month,” said Kundra. The API is software that allows two applications to interact with each other.

Officials say an average of 50 panic button alerts are received every day from commercial taxis in Delhi, but ‘most of them are due to fights between driver and customer over payment issues’.

Delhi Police spokesman Suman Nalwa said: ‘We are not getting any panic button alerts from commercial taxis like Uber or Ola so far. This was to be done by the Ministry of Transport as per the notification from the central government. To counter this, we have developed our own apps like Himmat Plus and equipped our PCR vans with state-of-the-art technology, which immediately responds to distress calls.

Nalwa said the police will take “about 20 days” to integrate its software with the Department of Transportation’s monitoring agency and was in talks with the Center for Advanced Computing Development (CDAC), which was working on the initiative. .

Asked about the delay, Transport Commissioner Kundra said: “The terms of this integration are being finalized as a matter of priority by the transport department and the police agency on their side.”

Kundra and police spokesman Nalwa said the software integration for the buses (DTC and cluster services) has been completed.

Officers say they respond within 15 to 20 minutes of each call received from DIMTS, but suggest it’s “better for runners to call the 112 number directly since we can track the location of the caller”.

But there are also “some bugs” in the 112 system. “For example, the Vodafone-Idea and Reliance-Jio networks are integrated but still do not show the caller’s continuous location, which is crucial for making intercepts. in a timely manner,” an officer said.

“Intermittent location is displayed and not continuous location. We have some bugs in the system and the CDAC is constantly working to improve location-based services for these networks,” said Nalwa, the police spokesperson. .

Uber has other safety features including an in-app SOS to trigger police alerts, sharing ride status with trusted contacts and a 24×7 security team. unlike the panic button, all of these features require runners to have access to their smartphones.

A spokesperson for Uber said that to improve passenger safety, the company’s ride-sharing app runs a “mandatory background check on all drivers by an authorized third-party provider before they complete their first trip on Uber”.

Transport officials said there are other deterrents in place to ensure compliance.

According to Kundra, in addition to regular monitoring, a “compulsory check” of these devices is carried out when the annual certificates of aptitude are issued. For drivers who tamper with the panic buttons or the VLTD, he said, the Department will issue e-challans to owners and in the event of further non-compliance, the vehicle will be “automatically blacklisted via software. VAHAN”.

In addition, one of the key proposals of Delhi’s Motor Vehicle Aggregation Scheme notified on July 5 is access for the Department of Transport to a web portal where aggregators would update details of their vehicles and drivers. to ensure passenger safety.

But drivers of Uber taxis that the Indian Express hailed pointed to other holes in the shield. Many of them said they managed to get certificates of fitness for their vehicles at the Burari test center on the outskirts of Delhi with no functioning panic buttons.

An official at the centre, which is one of two centers in Delhi, said: “Around 800 vehicles come to this center every day. It is difficult to check every vehicle for a working panic button. We mainly check if the documents are in place and if the vehicle is not in a damaged state.

Transport Commissioner Kundra said they are preparing to ‘operationalise’ an automated test station soon at Burari on the lines of the other South West Delhi test facility which caters to trucks.


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