London minicabs and public service ads

A few months ago, Transport for London published a set of advertisements aimed at encouraging people, particularly women, not to take the unlicensed “minicabs” which attempt to pick up passengers by the side of the road, because it could lead to them getting attacked. Just this past week, an American blog, Sociological Images, picked up the ad (HT: Womanist Musings) which found fault with it for using violence against women in advertisements like PeTA commonly do, for being potentially upsetting and for ignoring potential risks for men in using unlicensed cabs. (There are a lot of complaints about it at the British-based F Word blog too.)

There are two adverts they hold up; one is the recent one featuring a woman screaming inside a car, with the text (in all caps) “stop, no, stop please, no, please. Please stop taking unbooked minicabs”. The other features a woman with a partially greyed-out face, with the text, “to find out what an illegal cab could cost you, ask a rape victim”. Both advertise the Transport for London CabWise scheme, in which anyone can get the numbers of taxi and licensed minicab firms by text message. The reason for the adverts is that there are known to be illegal minicab drivers who “ply for hire” by the roadside around bars and theatres in various parts of London. These are cowboy operators who do not keep any records of their journeys. Riding with them is no different from just getting into a stranger’s car.

As in New York, there are two types of cabs in London: black cabs (equivalent to NY’s yellow taxis) and minicabs (equivalent to livery cabs). Black cabs are official cabs; although they are not always black, they are always one of three models of large cars, are meant to be wheelchair-accessible, and there is a fixed (and quite expensive) fare. Their drivers take a lengthy course known as “the knowledge” to make sure they know London, and particularly its major landmarks and routes, inside out. Minicabs are usually family-sized cars and are available on a pre-booked basis only, and their fare is generally much cheaper than black cabs. Most people would take a minicab unless it was really necessary, and black cabs only when they were desperate (such as needing to get to the station from the theatre at 11pm in the pouring rain). Black cabs can use most bus lanes, pick up passengers (“fares”) pretty much anywhere and everywhere, including in the middle of the road when the light has just gone green, and stop on red routes (main roads with stopping restrictions). Minicabs can do none of this. As far as road rules are concerned, they are just like any other car.

I defended the adverts, because rapes and other attacks on women who’ve used unlicensed cabs are a known problem. I am not sure what the other statistics, in terms of robberies (or even sexual assaults) on male passengers, let alone robberies of drivers by passengers, are like, but rape is still enough of a problem as to make it necessary to warn women about it (a man was found guilty last December of two sexual assaults on men while running a minicab illegally). There is perhaps a valid point that focussing on rape may lead men to think it’s OK to ride fake cabs as well (hence the scandal over Darren Johnson using one, and telling the world about it through his Blackberry tweeter, and then complaining that he got ripped off).

One commenter found fault with the apparent moral equivalence of running an illegal minicab service, or being part of the “underground economy”, with robbery and rape. However, nobody ever said that the two were equivalent; there are, however, definite advantages in using a licensed cab, such as that the driver and the car are traceable, the journey is logged and the fare is either pre-agreed or based on what the meter reads. It’s true that one black cab driver was found guilty of a series of rapes last year, but that was one individual; the vast majority of rapes involving cab drivers do not involve black cabbies but illegal minicab drivers. After all, you would not just get into any stranger’s car, but that is in effect what you are doing if you entrust yourself to a fake cab driver.

Nor is it “blaming the victim” to warn women of the dangers. Nobody, except a rapist, wants a woman to get raped. It is not a slur on the character of someone who has already been through it to warn women against using cowboy cabs, any more than warning people not to dive without making sure the water is deep enough is a slur on the character of this woman or this man, who both became paralysed after breaking their necks diving into water that turned out to be only about three feet deep. They were just having fun and the women who took the cabs were just desperate to get home, perhaps cold, perhaps a bit drunk. (I’m not saying some people don’t assign blame to the victim in such circumstances to the benefit of the rapist, just that these adverts do not do that.)

Perhaps the adverts are “hard-hitting” and may be “triggering” to victims of rape or abuse (i.e. it gives them a sharp reminder of their trauma), but such things as graphic imagery of the aftermaths of car accidents and other potentially upsetting material are the norm in British public safety adverts. The Advertising Standards Agency exists to regulate these kinds and if anyone finds this advert upsetting, they may complain online to them or to TFL themselves. However, it is too late to complain about this campaign as it does not seem to still be current; although referred to in archived press releases on the TfL site, the advert was introduced last November for the Christmas period, and their cab information pages contain no references to it today. This does not mean criticism of the advert is not valid, as it is likely that TfL will run more campaigns of this kind in the future, particularly in the approach to next Christmas.

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