A violent clash May 1 between a Montreal taxi driver and his fares that resulted in a man being struck by the cab is an all-too common example of the many angry confrontations cabbies face on an almost daily basis, people in the profession say.
In fact, taxi drivers and police have the highest on-the-job risk of murder, according to a Statistics Canada study of occupation-related homicides from 2000 to 2010.
Of the two, the study says, taxi drivers were twice as likely as police officers to be a victim of homicide while working, which drivers say reflects the fact that they are seen as vulnerable targets.
"We are drivers, we work in the street. But I don't see any respect," says Abraham Mesfun, a Montreal cabbie who was stabbed twice in the chest and nearly died in a robbery attempt three years ago.
"Something has to be done," says Mesfun. "The industry has to be looked at. They have to look at how we can make it better so we can make a living like anyone else.
"Otherwise, anytime some incident like this happens, of course everyone will talk about it, and then suddenly it will disappear."
Code of the road
Cab drivers at large operations like Toronto’s Beck Taxi are given sensitivity training and are urged to follow the company’s code of conduct. However, disputes occasionally erupt between driver and passenger.
Beck operations manager Kristine Hubbard suggests that if you have a problem with a taxi driver you should contact both the company in question, and your local licensing and standards commission.
"We focus on how to resolve conflict and avoid confrontation," Hubbard said.
"Fare disputes don’t happen often, and drivers are encouraged to deal with it quickly and move on … we tell them to take the path of least resistance."
A 2009 Montreal police survey found that one-quarter of cab drivers in the city have been robbed and that 98 per cent of drivers have had passengers skip out on paying, practices that seem to be common in other large centres.
Toronto cab driver Khalil Talke, who was stabbed multiple times and had his throat slit last year, said he sympathizes with the accused Montreal cab driver, who is charged with aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, hit and run and dangerous driving.
The hit and run that reportedly came after passengers disputed a fare and made racially charged comments.
"What else could he do. If I’m in his position what else could I do. Try to save my life and run away," Talke said.
"People they come to attack to you. That’s what happened to me. I survived."
According to iTaxiworkers Association, a Toronto organization that lobbies on behalf of cabbies, a recent survey of their members revealed that 70 per cent of drivers reported they felt in physical danger while working, 85 per cent said they had been verbally assaulted and over half said they had been physically assaulted or attacked.
Attacks on Montreal cabbies peak in the hour after bars close, between 3 and 4 a.m., according to police figures. Violent robberies are at their lowest from 5 to 6 p.m., and also generally down between 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. Neither time of year nor weekend versus weekday appears to make a difference.
Montreal's bylaw allows taxi drivers to refuse service to anyone who appears intoxicated or drug-crazed, or in a situation where the cabbie believes their safety is at risk. But elsewhere in Quebec, provincial regulations only permit a driver to reject a fare if the destination is more than 50 kilometres outside the cabbie's licenced zone.
In Toronto, city bylaws mandate that a cabbies must pickup potential passengers unless the driver "reasonably believes" them to be unsafe or they are "unduly obnoxious or abusive."
But Jacob Leibovitch, executive director of iTaxiworkers Association, said economic pressures often force cab drivers into dangerous situations.
"One of the key factors is the income for drivers is so low that in many cases they're taking additional risks on the road to make the money they need to feed their families."
Leibovitch said these economic pressures force cabbies to make late night pickups in remote locations, pick up intoxicated fares, and hustle for a "fare you may not otherwise stop for if all things were equal."
The industry has made moves to improve passenger safety over the years by mounting video cameras in cars and installing flashing call-911 lights on the trunks.
As a result, robberies are down from an average 130 a year between 1986 and 1996 to about 55 a year from 2000 to 2008, the last year for which Montreal police have statistics.
But some drivers question the effectiveness of many of these measures.
"They got the picture of my attacker but [the camera]
never prevented him from attacking me," Talke said.
There has been a push by some cab drivers for plexi-glass shields to be installed as a barrier between the front and back seat, as they are in New York City, for the safety of the driver.
But Leibovitch said that not all drivers in Toronto are on board with the idea as they feel it would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other transportation services.
"The shield is seen as a disincentive for people who want to take taxis," he says.
"There is a perception that it cuts the driver off from the customer and the interaction that might take place, which is generally seen by the drivers as one of the most important elements for attracting and retaining customers."
But both Talke and Mesfun said they support the barrier.
"I am definitely in favour for it – if it's a solution then yes, why not. Today, with the technology that we have, at daytime you could take it down, nighttime you could push it up, like a window. It may cost money, but money is worth the lives it is saving."