Saturday, 26 November 2011

(UPDATED) An open letter to Steve Burton, Transport for London's Director of Community Safety, Enforcement and Policing

On Tuesday night I was watching tv with a couple of my female housemates. An ad break came on and suddenly we were watching a simulated rape. It was the latest development in Transport for London's victim-blaming Cabwise campaign. The current ad isn't on Youtube yet but it's similar to previous ads. As the advert finished we all felt disturbed and deeply unhappy that TfL felt that was an appropriate way to spread the message that unlicensed cabs can be dangerous.

Back in October last year, I wrote a blog post about the Cabwise campaign in reference to a poster I'd seen, so I almost felt there was no reason to have another go this time around. Then, thanks to being on the TfL mailing list, I received this email:

Dear Ms Jones,
I am writing to remind you that unbooked minicabs picked up off the street are dangerous and put you at risk of sexual assault. The safest way to get a minicab home is to:
Book it - by phone, email or in a minicab office to guarantee your trip is carried out by a licensed, insured driver and vehicle
Check it’s yours - ask the driver to confirm your name and destination before you get in the car, and check the driver’s photo ID
Sit in the back - and carry your mobile in case of an emergency
Our Cabwise text service makes it easier to find and book a licensed minicab or taxi near you. Text CAB to 60835* to receive three local cab numbers.
For further details please visit Yours sincerely,
Steve Burton
Director of Community Safety, Enforcement and Policing
Since he'd gone to all the trouble of contacting me, I thought I'd let him know what I thought of his handiwork. If you are unhappy with the Cabwise campaign I invite to you contact him at

Dear Steve,

Thank you for this timely reminder. After seeing the latest Cabwise television advert last night I had been planning to contact TfL to complain about it.

I am glad that you recognise how huge and serious a problem it is that large numbers of women are raped by unlicensed cab drivers each year. I understand that Transport for London appears to believe that the best way to combat this horrific reality is to scare women out of taking unlicensed taxi cabs. However, my concern is that this approach is both deeply harmful and utterly unhelpful both for rape survivors and those who will go on to suffer the same fate in the future.

The advert makes every effort to simulate the experience of a rape. This is no doubt intended to be "hard hitting", to make women stop and think before they make a decision about how to get home. What doesn't appear to have been considered is the effect this advert will have on the millions of women in this country who have survived rape and sexual assault. Without any shadow of a doubt, that advert will force them to relive a deeply traumatic experience and trigger memories they may have struggled for years to put behind them. This approach has been used by Cabwise time and time again. In October 2010 I wrote a blog post about a poster I saw displayed in tube stations ( Please note the comment underneath: "My girlfriend has been raped and she relives that awful moment every time she sees this advert on TV."

As I wrote then, TfL appears to be of the opinion that creating pain and trauma for rape victims is a necessary price to raise awareness of the dangers of unlicensed cabs. I might find that more convincing if the adverts didn't also actively contribute to a culture of victim blaming that can only serve to hurt future rape victims.

Every Cabwise advert I have ever witnessed, both on television and displayed in tube stations, puts the responsibility for rape firmly on the victim. Your latest television ad tells us: "know what you're getting into". The poster I wrote about before read, "whether you approach the driver, or they approach you, there's no record of the journey and you're putting yourself in danger". To reiterate, the message is that if you get raped after taking an unlicensed taxi, it's because you put yourself in danger. I can hardly believe I have to say this, but: the only person to blame for rape is the rapist. The reason why so many women are raped by unlicensed cab drivers is not that women persist in taking unlicensed cabs, it is that drivers of unlicensed cabs choose to rape women.

If you genuinely want to help end the rape that is happening on your watch, you need to figure out how to get unlicensed drivers off the streets and how to prevent them posing a danger to women. Your approach will not end rape. What it does is encourages victims to blame themselves and discourages them from coming forward and taking their attacker to justice.

Please put yourself for a moment into the shoes of a woman who has been raped after taking an unlicensed cab and sees your adverts. The message she receives is that she caused it; she is responsible for it; she is to blame for it. After all, she'll think, she should have "known what she was getting into". It is extremely common for victims of rape and sexual assault to examine their own behaviour and seek any possible wrongdoing on their part so that they can make sense of the attack by blaming themselves. Your ad campaign encourages this.

This will prevent women reporting their attacker and trying to get a conviction. If she's to blame, why should the police listen to her? Why should a judge take her seriously? She'll probably also be put off seeking support from her friends and family or from professionals, as her experience then becomes a source of shame and guilt for her - when the only person who should be feeling ashamed and guilty is the rapist.

It's also extremely harmful to perpetuate the idea that women can prevent being raped by taking safety precautions. The fact is that the vast majority of rape victims do not experience what Ken Clarke earlier this year termed "classic rape". They do not usually suffer at the hands of a stranger who leapt out from behind a bush or grabbed them in the back of his taxi. The vast majority are raped by someone they already know, usually a partner or ex partner, usually in their home or a similar space which is not generally understood to be risky or dangerous. Telling women that they can avoid rape by avoiding unlicensed taxis is fundamentally untrue and unhelpful.

All the feedback I have seen from rape support and campaigning groups about the Cabwise adverts has been negative, so I'm inclined to believe that you did not consult any such groups in planning this ongoing ad campaign, which, given its content, seems like an inexcusable oversight. I would invite you to consider some of the much more constructive work on rape prevention which has been done in the last few years: for example, Lambeth Council's Know the Difference campaign or the Not Ever campaign by Rape Crisis Scotland. These both recognise what Cabwise resolutely fails to: that the only way to stop rape is to stop men from committing it. I also invite you to read some of the anonymous accounts of their experiences rape and sexual assault survivors have written and shared on the collaborative blog We're Telling. I am happy to recommend further reading which may help you and your team to develop an understanding of the complex issues surrounding rape and sexual assault.

In the interests of full disclosure I should inform you that I intend to publish this letter on my blog as a follow up from the aforementioned post, as well as any reply I receive from you. I would be happy to enter into ongoing private correspondence to work constructively with TfL and help you to develop more appropriate and less harmful advertising materials in the future.

I look forward to hearing from you.

This email was sent on Wednesday the 23rd of November. On the 12th of December I received the following reply:

Dear Helen
Thank you for your email in which you raised concerns about the latest Cabwise television ad. I am sorry about the delay in replying to you but I have been out of the office
The ad you refer to is part of this year’s Safer Travel at Night (STAN) campaign which aims to raise awareness of the serious dangers of unbooked minicabs, particularly to women, through hard hitting and thought provoking imagery and messages and provide the public with information on safer travel options including licensed taxis and minicabs. 
Any minicab journey, even those licensed by TfL, that isn’t booked through a minicab office is illegal and is potentially dangerous. Unbooked minicabs continue to pose a serious risk to the travelling public and can be a cover for some of the most serious crimes in London including sexual violence committed by strangers. Furthermore, these ‘cabs’ are unregulated and uninsured for the purposes of carrying passengers.
The campaign has been informed by extensive evaluation and pre testing research with focus groups of women who use unbooked minicabs.  While it is definitely not our intention to upset or blame women, we are determined to do everything we can to stop Londoners and visitors to London from becoming victims of offences committed by unbooked minicab drivers.  Our research has shown that strong hard hitting and thought provoking messaging is the most effective way of raising awareness and persuading women not to use unbooked minicabs, which is why the campaign highlights the risks of getting into unbooked minicabs. 
We work closely with the police, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and other relevant organisations to make sure that the messages in the campaign are effective but not inappropriate or likely to cause unnecessary distress. Furthermore, this element of the campaign is supported by a strong press and communications strategy to raise the profile of enforcement action being taken against perpetrators of cab-related sexual offences and illegal touting.
The marketing and communications campaign is only one part of the STAN initiative, a partnership between TfL, the Mayor of London and the police which aims to make travelling in the Capital safer at night. STAN also involves enforcement activity (including police action) to crack down on unbooked minicabs, licensing and regulation of the taxi and minicab trade, delivering improved late night travel services (there are now 114 buses running through the night, more than ever before), enhanced travel information and public education. 
TfL works closely with the Metropolitan Police Service and the City of London Police to tackle unbooked minicabs and now funds 68 dedicated cab enforcement officers. The Unit has made almost 8,000 arrests for touting and other cab-related offences since 2003. The Unit’s core activities include evening patrols in the hotspot locations from Wednesday to Saturday, covert anti-touting operations, high visibility enforcement activities to detect and deter illegal cab drivers, vehicle and licence checks and crime prevention activities.  The Unit carries out around 600 additional planned enforcement activities and operations in addition to the core anti-touting patrols every Thursday – Saturday evenings. Operation STAN is running across London over three weekends in December when more people are out and about and the demand for late night travel increases. The multi-agency operation aims to deter illegal cab activity and get people home safely during the festive period.
A proactive sexual offences team has also been established in the Cab Enforcement to enhance activity around cab-related sexual offences by targeting sexual predators and minimise the risk of attack. The team works closely with the MPS Serious Crime Directorate, the unit responsible for improving victim care and investigating sexual offences, to identify and apprehend sexual predators.
STAN has been extremely successful in reducing cab-related sexual offences, a 37% reduction since 2002/3 and reducing the demand for illegal cabs.  The latest market research shows that the proportion of women using illegal cabs in London has fallen from 19% in 2003 to 3% in 2011.

Apparently the ads are not "likely to cause unnecessary distress". Tell that to a rape survivor who's triggered by them. I also noticed he mentions that TfL work with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and other "relevant organisations" in developing the ads. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is an organisation which campaigns for better personal safety awareness. Their website states: "Personal safety is a life skill that can be learnt." No surprise, then, that they would not challenge TfL's victim-blaming stance. Steve did not mention the involvement of any rape crisis centres or similar organisations supporting survivors of rape, so I can only assume my assumption that none were consulted was correct. Surely that would be the single most relevant organisation that could possibly be involved?

 If you would like to tell Steve what you think of the campaign, email him at


  1. Thank you for this. I hate these ads, and have done since I first saw them. I took a photo of stickers criticising the ads ( and then had to explain to a good (male) friend why the ads make me feel ill - I am very lucky never to have been raped, but that doesn't mean I can ignore the feelings of those who have, and that I can pay no heed to the victim-blaming format chosen by TfL.

    Please let us know if you get a response to your excellent letter.

  2. I watched this ad the other night with my daughter and I am still haunted by it.

    I feel violated by this ad. Whatever excuse they make, to me it sounds as a corporate company trying to monopolize an industry by using the traumatic, terrifying and earth shattering experience of a human being.

    It is chilling and heartless.

  3. Hiring a truck is pretty common no matter what part of the world you stay in. Mostly people hire a truck in order to relocate their office or home. Hiring a truck and relocating is very common in the Gold Coast. TC Tippers