Russian Taxi Crashes Brings Driver Monitoring to Fore

Moscow cabs, including the ones in ride-hailing, caused 25% more serious road accidents in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to the authorities.

In an attempt to reverse the trend, the government is starting from the assumption that tiredness of drivers is a major reason for staggering collision numbers. Indeed, taxi drivers typically work 18 hours a day, says Stanislav Shvagerus, head of the competence center at ANO International Eurasian Forum Taxi.

Some of the providers monitor and limit worktime but the drivers can by-pass the system through switching between the apps of two or three companies. It is about to stop soon because the government is working with companies towards creating a united taxi drivers’ monitoring system. Two major players Yandex and Citymobil are already testing the technology in three regions while another company Vezyot is half-way to join them.

Shvagerus says talks about the shared monitoring started last autumn, long before the taxi collisions rate emerged. Eventually, sharing data between operators will become mandatory but for now “the government wants them to act of free will”.

Grey cabs

For better understanding, a brief introduction into the dynamics of Russian taxi market is needed. Just a few years ago taxis were painted grey with illegal private cab drivers stalking the streets, looking out for a client hailing a ride from the curbside. Legal taxi trips remained unaffordable for most citizens and also the quality of service was poor. For instance, a trip to a Moscow airport would cost around 10% of a worker’s average monthly salary.

In the last five years ride-hailing aggregators had broken the monopoly and brought the established taxi drivers to their knees. In most big towns, fare rates fell many-fold while quality improved. Ordering a cab became transparent, convenient, predictable and even entertaining.

On the dark side, the fare war between ride-hailing providers emptied the drivers’ pockets and forced them to longer shifts. “To earn 60K rubles per month (roughly $1,000), a driver has to work 12 hours a day,” says Andrey Popkov, vice-chairman at the labor union Taxist and a member of the presidential council.

The problem is that no-one in regulatory roles raised any doubts over the initial assumption that driver tiredness was the reason for more taxi accidents. Serious traffic violations have always been common among Russian taxi drivers. Recently a white Hyundai Solaris picked drove me the railway station touching speeds of 75mph, more than twice the local speed limit. Previously, in the event of an accident, an unlicensed driver would be reported by the police as a private driver. Many of them had since joined ride-hailing schemes and get classed as taxi drivers.

“Statistical data show that 60% of taxi-involving accidents are caused by illegal ones,” says Shvagerus. He is skeptical about the ability of the driver monitoring system to reverse the trend, adding: “A single measure will by no means change the process going on in the taxi industry. A complex action is needed.”

The federal parliament’s transportation committee is promising to fix the problem country-wide by issuing a new taxi-related law. “Currently, the committee is preparing the bill for the second reading so we don’t give commentaries,” its press secretary Diana Novikova answered in an email. She also said that: “Some of the concerns will be resolved including that regarding working-time norms.” Experts are pessimistic about the bill’s future. Shvagerus says: “That draft has been existing for seven years. Solving all the inter-related economical, social and technical controversies requires considerably long time.”

Driver training

Some of the ride-hailing companies are introducing safe-driving stimuli. For instance, this year Yandex had started deployment of a network of driver training centers. The company also warns drivers about speeding violations. Clients can motivate best drivers leaving reviews and tips via the app. Popkov argues that the provider-driver-client system can’t self-regulate: “The problem is, in the absence of proper regulation, the aggregators take no responsibilities at all. All the companies are interested in is inflating the bubble of their profits ahead of IPOs.” Instead, he suggests establishing a mandatory working time limitation.

“An immutable rule of transportation says that safety is directly proportional to the amount of regulation in the market,” agrees Shvagerus. However, he warns though that rules should be introduced with caution: “Working time limitation will hurt drivers’ earnings and result in higher fares and consequent reduce in orders.” The dilemma could be solved through the parallel downsizing of working hours and a providers’ commission fees. He added: “Currently 25% to 30% fees are not financially justified.”

Russians say with some irony that the authorities prefer to “prohibit problems instead of solving them” and these issues with human drivers explains why Yandex is pushing so hard with it driverless tech.

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