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Uber panic button: On paper for security, but in car only for show

In 48 of 50 rides The Indian Express took, either panic button wasn’t there or didn’t work.

According to Delhi Statistical Handbook 2021, the capital has an estimated registered fleet of 1,12,401 private commercial taxi vehicles. (Express Photo)

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

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

Illustrative of this gap between regulation and practice is Uber’s own infrastructure. The Indian Express took 50 Uber rides in Delhi over a month and did not find a functioning panic button in 48 of them.

Instead, it found a monitoring system hobbled by glitches — including an unresolved software “integration issue” that prevents the nodal Transport agency, which receives the cab alerts, from passing them on immediately to the Delhi Police.

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Consider this:

— Of the 50 Uber cabs, only seven had active panic buttons. In five of these seven, pressing the button did not result in follow-up action from the Delhi Police despite a wait of 20 minutes.

— In 43 cabs, 29 did not have panic buttons at all. Drivers in 15 of the 29 cars said they had bought the vehicles from Haryana and UP with fitness certificates despite the Union Road Transport Ministry notifying the use of panic buttons in 2016. The other 14 said they had bought their cars before 2019, the cut-off year from when these buttons became mandatory.

— Of the rest on the list of 43, four drivers said the panic buttons in their cars were broken by their own children; three said that they had disabled the button to stop passengers from pushing it out of curiosity. And seven drivers said the buttons stopped working after they conducted repair work.

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

HOLES IN THE SYSTEM

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

On April 18, 2018, the Ministry issued another notification specifying a cut-off date, and said all such vehicles registered on and after January 1, 2019 shall be fitted with this combo safety feature.

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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 for the Transport Department, to be instantly relayed to the Delhi Police’s Emergency Response Support System (ERSS) on 112. But officials said alerting the police has been “a time-taking process” so far due to a “lack of software integration between the two systems”.

“At present, when we get a panic button alert from a cab, we call the police station concerned, which relays the details to the PCR van. A lot of time is wasted in figuring out the right jurisdiction,” a Transport official said.

According to Delhi Statistical Handbook 2021, the capital has an estimated registered fleet of 1,12,401 private commercial taxi vehicles. Delhi Transport Commissioner Ashish Kundra said 11,832 commercial taxis registered after 2019 have been fitted with VLTD and panic buttons in the capital — and alerts are accessible through a web-based application.

“However, for the achievement of panic alerts integration with PCR 112 system, the API (Application Programming Interface) document and credentials are being obtained by the Transport Department from the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Operations & Communication). The integration is at an advanced stage and likely to be completed within a month,” Kundra said. API is a software that allows two applications to interact with each other.

Officials say an average of 50 panic button alerts are received from commercial taxis in Delhi every day but “most of them are due to fights between the driver and customer on payment issues”.

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Delhi Police spokesperson Suman Nalwa said: “We are not receiving any panic button alerts from commercial taxis like Uber or Ola till now. This was supposed to be done by the Transport Department as per the Central Government notification. To counter this, we have come up with our own apps like Himmat Plus and equipped our PCR vans with state-of-the-art technology, which responds to distress calls immediately.”

Nalwa said the police will take “around 20 days” to integrate their software with the Transport department’s monitoring agency and were in talks with Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), which was working on the initiative.

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Asked about the delay, Transport Commissioner Kundra said: “The modalities of this integration are being completed on priority basis by the Transport Department and the police enforcement agency at their end.”

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

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Police officers say they respond within 15-20 minutes of each call received from DIMTS but suggest that it is “better for the riders to call the 112 number directly since we can track the location of the caller”.

But there are “some bugs” in the 112 system as well. “For instance, Vodafone-Idea and Reliance-Jio networks are integrated but still don’t show continuous location of the caller, which is crucial in making timely interceptions,” an officer said.

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

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

An Uber spokesperson said that to improve the security of riders, the company’s ride-sharing app runs a “mandatory background check on all drivers by an authorised third-party vendor before they make their first trip on Uber”.

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

According to Kundra, apart from regular monitoring, a “mandatory check” of these devices are carried out at the time of issuing annual fitness certificates. For drivers tampering with panic buttons or VLTD, he said, the Department will issue e-challans to the owners and in cases of further non-compliance, the vehicle will “be blacklisted automatically through VAHAN software”.

Besides, one of the key proposals in the Delhi Motor Vehicle Aggregation scheme notified on July 5 is access for the Transport department to a web-based portal where aggregators would update the details of their vehicles and drivers to ensure passenger safety.

But drivers on Uber cabs that The Indian Express hailed pointed to other holes in the shield. Many of them said they managed to get fitness certificates for their vehicles at the Burari testing centre on the outskirts of Delhi — without functioning panic buttons.

An official at the centre, which is one of the two centres in Delhi, said: “About 800 vehicles come to this centre every day. It is difficult to check every vehicle for a functioning panic button. We mainly see if the documents are in place and the vehicle is not in a damaged condition.”

Transport Commissioner Kundra said they are moving to soon “operationalise” an automated testing station in Burari on the lines of the other testing facility in Southwest Delhi that caters to trucks.

First published on: 11-07-2022 at 06:00:41 am
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