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Dunedin police still 'not able to stop' people using illegal taxi groups after five years

Dunedin police say they are still unable to stop people using illegal taxi ride Facebook groups which have now operated for more than five years, with Rape Education NZ saying users are putting themselves in "highly dangerous" situations.

Three such groups, the largest of which is the 13,000-member "Dunedin sober drivers" public group, have been used by locals since 2013 to seek and offer cheap rides around the region in exchange for cash or a bank transfer.

On a typical weekend, more than 100 rides are offered or sought, with the busiest times being late at night and during the early hours.

Police have tried in the past to crack down on the groups, beginning by sending warnings to drivers before eventually saying in 2014 that there would be "no further warnings".

"This is a serious offence and for the first offence, it carries a maximum fine of $10,000," police said. "A second offence carries a maximum fine of $20,000 and the impoundment of your car.

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"Those caught operating as taxis (unlicensed passenger service) will be prosecuted and put before the court."

Despite that warning, police have confirmed to 1 NEWS that just two successful prosecutions have been carried out against drivers from the group within the past five years, despite most operating without any attempt to hide their identity in the group.

A spokesperson for IRD declined to comment specifically on the group, saying "our tax system is based on voluntary compliance", and an NZTA spokesperson also referred queries to police.

MULTIPLE INCIDENTS DURING GROUP'S HISTORY

Police have had numerous issues relating to the group over the past five years, including a violence incident in August, drivers in the group supplying underage riders with alcohol, and a woman being indecently assaulted by a driver in 2015.

In August this year, tensions between taxi drivers and the unofficial drivers exploded, with a woman's windshield shattered in an anonymous attack after taxi drivers swore at her and told her to get off their rank, despite her holding the necessary paperwork.

In May last year, police revealed drivers from the group had supplied underage riders with alcohol, prompting a warning to parents to keep an eye on their kids.

In November of 2016, police said people with criminal convictions acting as unlicenced taxi drivers had begun approaching people at taxi ranks offering rides and again warned people to stick with registered taxis.

In May of 2015, a 21-year-old female student was indecently assaulted by a 19-year-old driver on a learner's licence who had offered her a ride through the group - she had fallen asleep in his back seat while heavily intoxicated when he began groping her.

MEN ARE USING THE GROUP FOR 'OTHER PURPOSES'

Rape Prevention Education Whakatu Mauri Trust say they hold serious concerns about the group, which puts vulnerable people into the vehicles of un-vetted and un-monitored drivers.

One woman who uses the group was this month was asked for a ride by a man, who then offered to pay her $100 to have sex with him, according to a post seen by 1 NEWS.

Another woman who uses the group said she has had to block men who were trying to use the group "for other purposes".

Professional taxi drivers have to pass character checks and vetting in order to get and keep a passenger endorsement - Stuff reports that, of the 388 individuals assessed by NZTA for endorsements over the past two years, 34 were refused or revoked due to the drivers having convictions for sex-related crimes - more than eight per cent.

Rape Prevention Education Director Debbi Tohill said she is concerned people seem happy to take rides from complete strangers.

Debbi Tohill of Rape Prevention Education says predators are likely to take advantage of environments like the Dunedin sober driving groups.
Debbi Tohill of Rape Prevention Education says predators are likely to take advantage of environments like the Dunedin sober driving groups. Source: 1 NEWS

"People use fake Facebook profiles which makes them very hard to track if anything goes wrong ... getting into a car with an unknown person can be highly dangerous and risky" Ms Tohill said.

"The Facebook page has some comments which would make me think people are accessing this site to look out for vulnerable people and there are certainly some disrespectful comments to some of the women.

Ms Tohill said the environment and nature of the group gives would-be predators opportunities to prey on "vulnerable people - people who have been drinking.

"I'd certainly like to see it put a stop to," she said.

"I always think it's a good idea that prevention strategies are used - because after it happens, it's too late."

DUNEDIN TAXI COMPANY MAY 'DISAPPEAR'

Legitimate taxi operators like Dunedin Taxis have been calling for action on the groups since their creation, and manager Simone Green said her company at risk of "disappearing" after 77 years in operation if people choose a cheap ride over safety.

"They are cheaper because they don't have the overheads and compliance requirements we are expected to follow ... cheap is great until someone's daughter or son gets injured, assaulted or loses their life," Ms Green said.

"Parents teach their children not to accept rides from strangers, yet there is public acceptance to travel with people they probably don't know."

Dunedin Taxis Senior Administrator Brenda Griffin said many would assume her company were only upset because of lost business, but she said the issue of safety was paramount.

Brenda Griffin, spokesperson for Dunedin Taxis, says the company doesn't mind competition, so long as the competition is on an equal playing field.
Brenda Griffin, spokesperson for Dunedin Taxis, says the company doesn't mind competition, so long as the competition is on an equal playing field. Source: 1 NEWS

"You're getting a service from somebody that you don't know, you're getting into a car that may not be registered or may not be warranted, or a driver that may not have a full license - so there are significant risks for people," Ms Griffin said.

"Generally the passengers that they're taking are at their most vulnerable - late nights at weekends, so yeah that is of concern, and has been for some time.

"I think the problem has been for some time that nobody quite knows how to deal with [the group]."

Ms Green said the company had initially reported illegal rides being set up within the group, but said they have now given up "because it seems obvious little can be done".

"The Police and NZTA will advise they simply don't have the resources for enforcement - and sadly, that's true," she said.

John Hart, Director of the New Zealand Taxi Federation said "as far as we are aware there has been little or no enforcement."

POLICE 'NOT ABLE' TO STOP IT

Police's southern district Road Policing and Operations Manager Inspector Amelia Steele told 1 NEWS police are "not able to stop members of the public using the page to offer cheap rides".

"We want to remind people that while those providing this service may be offering a cheap rate, people using it need to be wary that this is an unlicensed and unmonitored service.

"If people feel unsafe they should remove themselves from the situation, and if they feel threatened with harm they should call 111."

The administrator of "Dunedin sober drivers" Micah Wharerimu said he has never been contacted by police over the years.

"People were saying the police were looking for whoever created the page to shut it down, but I never heard from anyone at all."

Inspector Steel said police now plan to "make contact with the group to talk about both legal and safety considerations."

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    More than 100 rides each weekend are still going ahead. Source: 1 NEWS