Not just me, it’s ‘we’ who are responsible for safety of women commuters

Reports of harassment and molestation of women commuters, often involving app-cabs, have become all too common. For all practical purposes, though, the responsibility to make commute safe lies with multiple agencies -- operators, government departments and yes, commuters themselves.

The convenience that app-cabs provide to citizens has brought with it the unfortunate reality of harassment and molestation cases involving cab drivers. With newspapers publishing such cases every day from all over the country, there have been many suggestions, apps, safety instructions for operators, commuters, etc. but at the end of the day, there is only so much that apps can do.

The rising number of such cases tends to lead one to believe that cab rides may be unsafe. One should keep in mind that not all drivers are bad. They have been trained by the operators and verified by the police before getting behind the wheel. They are driver-partners and owners of the vehicle you are riding.

Making women commuters – or any commuter, for that matter – safe, comes with a mix of responsibilities that must be shared by operators, commuters, drivers as well as government departments such as police, transport, etc.

Initiatives taken for safety of women commuters

Many operators have initiated the process by adding safety features — enabling the commuter to share trip details with friends and family, introducing safety button on the app, real-time vehicle tracking, providing gender sensitisation training to drivers and routing the calls from a centralised number to maintain secrecy of phone numbers between commuters and drivers.

The government has also taken steps like mandating child lock check stickers on cabs (Delhi), mandating the employer to provide pick-up and drop-off for women working late nights, providing city police women safety apps such as Pratisaad (Mumbai) and HawkEye (Hyderabad) which connect the commuter to the nearest police station for emergency assistance and ban on tinted windows in cabs. While these initiatives are a good start but require further deep diving. 

Though the operators put stickers to check for child lock, the instruction is not fool-proof. Instead, when a driver wants to associate with the platform, this feature might have to be permanently disabled. There is the suggestion that manufacturers or vehicle-selling companies can contribute by disabling the child lock feature free of cost or the operator may bear the cost.

Current status and way forward

There have been incidences when commuters reported that the safety button didn’t work for them and all that the operators could do was refund the fare. Hence, the operators need to take a step forward on the safety initiatives by integrating their app with police emergency services. A microphone installed in the cab which transmits the conversation to the operator call centre with a facility to direct it the police station as and when required will keep a check on drivers as well as commuters; cameras could be an add-on. 

In addition, operators may also provide commuters with a choice of route at the time of booking the cab, upon which no detouring shall be allowed (even if the commuter requests).

The operators may also think of employing drivers rather than making them driver-partners. This will bind the drivers to follow certain rules and regulations drafted by the operators. Random checks from operators such as vehicle checking, trip details, driver inspection would discourage driver misbehaviour. A standard checklist can help in smooth operations and employing drivers will help carry out these procedures.

Commuters trust operators while booking a cab and not drivers as individuals. Hence, the operators have a bigger role to play in passenger safety. The commuter has to be the  responsibility of the operator while onboard.

After the operators, the government needs to take up the responsibility. Basic safety norms, permit requirements and driver verification process may have to be streamlined further. A standard checklist for checking vehicle condition and regulatory compliance could be established for the operators for timely checks. This may include working condition of microphone/camera, driver mobile number, other suspicious devices in the car and so on.

The law should clearly define acts that can be counted as sexual harassment, the degree of intensity and action to be taken against such complaints. The existing rules may have to be amended from time to time to suit the changing needs. New policies might be framed as required. Currently, cab aggregator and bike taxi policies are being drafted by many states, while a few others rely on the Central Motor Vehicles Act. There also can be all-India policy/regulations, as these issues have been reported nationwide and are not specific to any state. 

A safety checklist developed by the operators may be set up for government approval or the government, in association with experts, can come up with standard checklists and safety regulations.

What commuters should do

The commuter must also take care to have minimum required communication with the driver and avoid over-friendly behaviour, keep a check on the route, share the trip with at least one contact, avoid getting engaged on phone or revealing personal details, prefer taking a back seat. Remember, it’s not your car and be alert throughout the journey.

Commuters should also contribute by giving detailed feedback, mention the issues faced as also compliment good behaviour. This will enable operators to take appropriate action like incentivising good deeds and act strictly against misbehaviour. For misbehaviour, the driver may be banned from all platforms or may undergo legal action depending on the severity of his misdemeanour. 

There have been incidents when drivers locked the female passengers inside the vehicle and physically harassed them or followed them out of the cab. Such behaviour is intolerable. The driver, if found guilty, should not be let off with a few days of imprisonment and penalty. The punishment should be severe as to make an example of him, and ensure other drivers refrain from such behaviour.

To conclude, the responsibility to make travel safe lies with operators, government departments and commuters alike. This not only applies to cabs but all other modes of transport. It is important to maintain statistics and data while tackling these issues. Operators may have to revamp their training programmes (include gender sensitisation) and also have a rigorous background check on drivers. 

Safety buttons have to be mandated in all cabs to reach the police in case of emergency. The transport department, being the licensing and regulatory authority, should play a key role in ensuring safe commute.

All said and done, women themselves have to take proactive steps towards gender equality: Be strong and stand up for yourselves!

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