Smile, Tacoma: You’re on cabbie camera.
Or, at least you’re about to be — after the City Council on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules requiring taxicabs in Tacoma to be equipped with digital surveillance cameras.
The new rules, which take effect June 24, are aimed at increasing safety for cab drivers, officials said.
They will apply to all 88 existing cabs now licensed in Tacoma — as well as any prospective ones — when the city conducts its next round of annual taxicab inspections in August, city officials said.
The code changes will give more flexibility to taxicab companies than the more rigid provisions that have been on the city’s books for the past six years but were never implemented.
Under the new rules, all cabs must be outfitted with digital camera systems capable of taking still pictures. Video and audio recordings aren’t required.
The changes “require images to be retained for five days (and) to provide a clear, unobstructed view of the driver and passenger, and a status indicator light so the driver knows the camera is working,” said Danielle Larson, the city’s tax and license division manager.
After five days, cab owners can record over or destroy the images. Signs also must be posted on the outside of cabs and inside passenger areas to notify customers that the vehicle is outfitted with an operating digital camera system.
The camera requirement comes after more than two years of delay and several meetings to address the concerns of local taxicab company owners.
Following the lead of similar measures in Seattle and Portland, Tacoma’s council adopted an ordinance requiring security cameras in taxicabs in 2007. The ordinance coincided with a rash of unrelated attacks and other crimes on cabbies throughout Washington.
Statistics were not readily available Tuesday to show whether crime against drivers dropped in Seattle after that city passed its camera requirement, Seattle police spokesman Mark Jamieson said. But footage from a taxicab camera helped convict a suspect in 2008 for killing a Seattle cab driver.
Tacoma’s original 2007 ordinance gave all licensed taxicabs operating in the city until Jan. 1, 2011, to install security cameras. It also provided that any images ultimately recorded by the cameras would be made accessible only to law enforcement.
But with the economy still struggling when 2011 arrived, city officials opted to hold off enacting the requirement for one year after owners of several cab companies complained it would kill their businesses.
Shortly before the requirement was set to kick in last year, some cab firm owners again raised concerns. One central worry: the new taxicab code mandated digital camera systems to be accessible only to police. That limited purchasing options to a few select — and high-cost — vendors.
“The way the code was written, it did really restrict the taxi companies,” Larson said. “There were maybe one or two vendors they could use.”
The city agreed yet again to delay implementing the requirement until additional study could be done on “more options both financially and usability wise,” Larson said.
Nine of the city’s 12 licensed taxi companies participated in discussions, leading to changes to expand the use of cameras beyond just cops to cab company owners. Business owners can now use the images shot by cameras in their cabs to help monitor driver behavior and for insurance purposes in the event of, for example, an accident.
“It gives us a little more leeway,” said Michael Reeves, who owns Tacoma-based King Cab Co. and Fort Lewis Taxi Service. “It can save us on insurance costs, help us reduce wear and tear on our vehicles and make things a lot safer for the public at large.”
The changes also open more vendor and camera options, with purchasing costs ranging from $200 to $1,000, officials said.
Reeves, who has bought more than $20,000 of camera equipment to outfit his companies’ 46 cabs, said the city’s flexibility has helped to reduce the impacts facing local taxi firms.
“It would’ve been rough (to require this) a few years ago,” he said. “But now we’ve had a couple years to mull it over and had the opportunity to purchase some of these cameras and get ready. I actually think it will pay off for us in the long run.”Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542