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Tracking System Keeps Cab Drivers Safer

Add new technology to an everyday act such as driving, and the results can be unpredictable.

That's what happened last week to Whittlesea Blue/Henderson Taxi, one of Las Vegas's largest taxi conglomerates. Whittlesea is in the midst of installing a global positioning system (GPS) for all 150 of its cabs. As part of the changeover, the company is also installing remote-control switches that can turn off the cabs' motors.

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Drivers were so worried about how the company would use the shut-off switch, they staged a two-day strike last week. ``That was one of the primary concerns,'' says Dave Manes, business representative for the United Steelworkers local, which represents the drivers. The drivers returned to work after the company assured them that it would shut off engines only in case of a robbery, and only if it would not endanger a driver or passengers.

GPS allows the company to track the exact location of its cabs and the computer to automatically dispatch them as calls come in. The system makes it nearly impossible for a competing taxi driver to listen in on the radio broadcasts and steal fares. It is one of the first taxi companies in the world to incorporate the technology.

``I would say that puts them on the cutting edge of the industry,'' says Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the International Taxicab and Livery Association, based in Kensington, Md. ``The industry has looked at [implementing] it for years. The problem has been the cost.''

Two other taxi fleets in Britain and Sweden are also moving to adopt GPS, Mr. LaGasse says. Yellow Cab in Chicago is using a ground-based tracking system to improve driver security.

Security was key in convincing Whittlesea Blue/Henderson Taxi to adopt GPS. Three Las Vegas taxi drivers have been shot in recent weeks, says Shawn Nee, the company's personnel manager, though none drove for Whittlesea. Yet, the ability to instantly locate a car during a holdup should make it easier to catch assailants, he says. Each car has a foot pedal near the high-beam light switch that instantly - and silently - alerts the dispatcher if there's a problem.

Despite the added security, some drivers are reluctant to use the new technology. ``At first there was that resistance to computers from the drivers, especially the older drivers,'' Mr. Nee says. But ``everyone adapts to the system, and it seems to work very well.''

Most drivers either love the system or hate it, says Elwood Clark, who has been driving for the company nearly two years. But ``it doesn't bother me one way or the other.''

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