Late last year, two incidents were reported in the media of young passengers being dropped off by Ola drivers onto the motorway network.
The first incident involved two teenage boys ordered out of an Ola cab on the Auckland Harbour Bridge after the driver took the wrong lane:
The passengers, boys aged 16 and 17, were said to have had to run down a motorway on-ramp to get to safety.
The two young friends had been travelling from Glen Innes to Westhaven using the Ola ride sharing service when the alleged incident happened just after 10pm on Friday.
The second incident involved a young woman dropped off on a motorway ramp by an Ola driver who insisted on following the faulty navigation system’s instructions despite her explanation not to:
Her work was on Grafton Rd, but always came up in the wrong place on Ola and Uber maps, but she explained the anomaly to drivers and got them to use Google Maps to reach the correct destination.
She had explained this to the Ola driver this morning, but she said he didn’t listen.
“I was saying, ‘you’re going the wrong way’, but he said, ‘it says to drive you here, so I have to’.”
Clearly the drivers were breaking a law that anyone licensed to drive in NZ should understand and abide by, and Ola probably has good systems in place to respond to the driver misconduct:
“If drivers are found to have breached our standards, they receive a warning notice and if the incident is serious they can be immediately suspended or permanently banned from the platform.”
There’s more involved here, though, than individual driver responsibility:
- the navigation systems – not just Ola and Uber’s, but Google and AT’s Journey Planner – have many errors that send drivers to incorrect locations and tell pedestrians to take unsafe routes;
- the driver in the second incident hinted at a culture requiring rigid adherence to company rules rather than a culture that trusts drivers to deviate from guidelines in order to make the safest decision;
- wrong turns and faulty navigation systems put stress on rideshare drivers because their income depends on completing jobs and moving swiftly from one job to the next;
- in a safe system, performance-related income is only utilised if it pushes people to always choose the safer option, not if it pushes them to cut corners.
I was immediately reminded of a Streetfilms interview from 5 years ago.
In this interview, Claes Tingvall, then Director of Traffic Safety at the Swedish Transport Administration, talks of “Moving Responsibility Upwards,” and describes the Vision Zero approach to improving the safety of commercial services:
The other thing… is to talk with the management of taxis, of those who are setting up the bus companies here, those who have big haulage fleets, big passenger car fleets. It’s up to the management to ensure that the taxi is driving in a decent way… Of course, if a taxi is driving very aggressive towards me, I thought about the driver in the old days. Today I think about the taxi company, the CEO behind the wheel…
Given of course the right environment… given the right advice, and empowerment, but also getting the right technology… because of course it’s the CEO who takes the decision on what kinds of vehicle you should buy… So it’s moving responsibility upwards, for things that should be moved upwards. I mean, of course, an individual shouldn’t be driving drunk and things like that… But a lot of decisions can only be taken at a higher level in the community. An individual driver cannot go out and change the street. You can’t change the taxi driver. There are others who need to do that, and of course, it’s the power of leadership…
And we as a government of course can do a lot of things. We only today purchase taxi transports that can guarantee us, that – without saying anything when I walk into the taxi – that that trip is done in a safe and an environmentally sound way. And we don’t pay for it – if the driver is speeding, we don’t pay to the taxi company through the contractor, because that didn’t happen in the way it should do…
But in the end, it’s going to be the leadership who really pick up all those norms first and say, no this is a matter of sustainability. This is how a good company works, with good citizens in shaping the community.
Clearly he sees there’s room for government to establish a safe environment and a safe system, so pressure on drivers can be appropriately targeted to ensuring their actions are also focused on safety. I thought I’d see what responsibility our agencies accepted for tracing the reported incidents to the underlying causes.
First I contacted Auckland Transport:
We have referred your query to NZTA as the motorway is a part of their boundary. Your contact information have been provided to them so the team will be in touch with you directly.
I also contacted the Police:
For Police to initiate the investigative process, credible evidence is required that a described criminal offence has been committed. In situations such as the events in your request this would need to be in the form of a complaint made by the victim. Media reports are not considered credible evidence for Police to investigate.
To the best of our knowledge, Police has not been contacted by members of the public, Auckland Transport, or the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) regarding this alleged situation…
It is worth noting that NZTA is responsible for the driver licensing of passenger services vehicles and any perceived breach of obligations applying to drivers operating passenger services vehicles should be made to NZTA.
I eventually followed up with the NZTA, (who could find no referral from Auckland Transport on the subject):
It is illegal for members of the public to stop on a motorway. Only emergency services are legally permitted to stop on the motorway network and this is enforced by the New Zealand Police.
In an event where a member of the public has stopped on the motorway and it is reported via the Police non-emergency 105 line or via *555, the event is detected and verified by CCTV cameras at the Auckland Traffic Operations Centre (ATOC), the procedure is to report it to Police for enforcement action.
All Ola drivers must hold a Passenger endorsement licence (P licence) granted from the NZ Transport Agency, all those who hold a P licence must undergo a fit and proper person check and a background check.
These checks are repeated every 12 months to ensure that the person remains fit and proper. A fit and proper person check looks at matters such as traffic offending, previous complaints, serious behavioural issues and always includes a Police check to check for criminal offending, including overseas convictions.
The Transport Agency is unable to intervene in an enforceable matter and is satisfied that current motorway infrastructure and existing traffic laws are safe and fit for purpose. To make a complaint regarding specific events, I would suggest contacting Ola directly.
Individually, each one of these responses seems reasonable. Collectively, do they produce a safe system?
In both cases, the passengers reported it to the media, but apparently not to the Police. Do the public feel contacting the media is more likely to achieve a better outcome than a report to the Police? Ideally, the media would be trained to encourage the victims to report the incident to the Police, but they too will need to feel the typical Police response warrants giving such advice.
And while the Police say there’s not enough evidence to initiate the investigative process, surely these reports are sufficiently serious for the Police to wish to follow up seeking a statement from the passengers concerned? Also, the Police response suggests they think you need a victim before a traffic offence is committed, which is clearly not true.
AT, in turn, has an interest here, surely? Both the errors in the navigation systems, and drivers dropping passengers in unsafe locations, are phenomena that impact users of the local road network, too, and need addressing.
The NZTA’s annual “fit and proper person check” and “background check” system relies on someone reporting the incident – if not to the Police then at least to the passenger services company – and on the company keeping complete records. If NZTA regularly undertakes random checks on record-keeping, or if they had used my query as an opportunity to undertake a rare verification check, would this not have been mentioned in the response I received from them?
Is the NZTA’s approach to managing safety for passenger services set up to allow companies or the Police to respond punitively to driver misdemeanor, but not to try to identify and improve sector culture, technology shortfalls and other systemic problems?
The government’s new Road-to-Zero Strategy says:
Adopting Vision Zero means committing to safety as a critical priority for investment and decision-making, and a greater focus on system changes rather than on addressing human error alone.
If both the driver licensing system and Police enforcement are fit for purpose, the Agency should be urgently curious about what else is required to achieve a safe system, not “satisfied that current motorway infrastructure and existing traffic laws are safe and fit for purpose”.
Last year, the Regulatory Review of the NZTA found:
the NZTA did not have a full appreciation of the wider capability it required to operate as a well functioning, risk-based regulator (e.g. regulatory intelligence, research and evaluation, operational policy and practice, risk and assurance)…
The review concluded that the most significant aspect of regulatory failure has been the combined failure of NZTA to provide oversight and leadership over the regulatory system and deliver on its role and functions within this system…
The new Road-to-Zero Action Plan barely touches on safety in small passenger services. These words are probably more focused on issues like driver fatigue:
Our regulatory framework needs to incentivise the right behaviours in commercial transport, apply obligations at the right level, and ensure that we can enforce these obligations in a responsive and risk-based manner…
Key challenges in the passenger transport sector (e.g. small passengers services – taxis and shuttle services, and buses) include pressures caused by the operating environment, the age of parts of the bus fleet, driver skills and experience, and driving hours and fatigue.
Is it possible for AT, NZTA and the Police to:
- Seek information from passenger service drivers, passengers themselves and other road users, about what pressures result in passenger service safety concerns being overridden.
- Implement systems to remove these pressures, and/or to provide opposing pressures that ensure safety is always the top consideration. Consider Claes Tingvall’s idea of an easy way to refuse payment whenever safety is compromised.
- Improve the navigation systems themselves.
- Establish clear guidelines for a healthy safety-first passenger service sector culture, and regulate companies to ensure their systems are fit for purpose.
- Provide comprehensive and ongoing driver education.
- Prioritise following through on all safety concerns reported to Police and agencies. A process that relies on reporting from the public requires that the public can see a point in doing so.
- Ensure all decision-makers and communicators at the Police and agencies receive full Vision Zero training.
Importantly, the government released for consultation in December a Land Transport (NZTA) Legislation Amendment Bill – the NZTA Bill to respond to the NZTA’s regulatory shortcomings, which would create:
a statutory Director of Land Transport (the Director) who is responsible for carrying out the NZTA’s regulatory functions and powers.
To allow for a swift change to a safe transport network, It would be helpful if the Director receives comprehensive training in safety from someone like Claes Tingvall.