Cabbie says night shift in Hamilton is 'petrifying'

After the brutal beating of Hamilton cabbie Anwar Sajad other drivers are very concerned about their safety.

After the brutal beating of Hamilton cabbie Anwar Sajad other drivers are very concerned about their safety

Hamilton cabbies have safety concerns following last week's attack on Anwar Sajad. (Matt Moir/CBC)

After the brutal beating of Hamilton cabbie Anwar Sajad other drivers are very concerned about staying safe on the road.

On the night of July 16, Sajad was beaten by a passenger outside of a townhouse complex on Limeridge Rd.  The cabbie suffered a dislocated shoulder, a broken pelvis, and a broken leg.

Hamilton cab driver and friend of the Sajad family, Asif Abbas, said that many of his colleagues now think twice each time a passenger asks to be dropped off at an out-of-the-way location late at night.

"It's petrifying. The night shift always brings you surprises. You don't know who is sitting behind you. Until that destination comes, there are certain times when we're petrified. That minute or two minutes at the end, we want to get it over with as quickly as possible."  

The unwritten rules

Abbas told the CBC that cabbies are re-embracing the 'unwritten rules' that drivers abide by to ensure their safety.

The first rule is to "welcome the customer as warmly as you can, because that breaks the ice."

"I always try to start a conversation. I just try to talk to him about the weather or something like that, just to make things very smooth. And sometimes I see that some people don't like to talk at all, so I just try to stay calm, and stay silent and put on some smooth music," said Abbas.

Abbas also said that there are some areas of the city — he wouldn't say where — that he and fellow drivers would rather not go.

"If a customer asks to go to an area that we feel might not be safe, we tell them 'You know what?  This is approximately how much it will cost.  I can make it a flat rate for you.'  That way we don't have to make an issue or argue about a fare at the destination."

Verbal attacks are 'part of the job,' cab boss says

Jagtar Singh Chahal, CEO of Hamilton Cab, acknowledges that danger still exists for cabbies, but insists that the streets are far safer now than they were when he was a driver 25 years ago.

"When I was driving there were no cameras, no cell phonies, no emergency lights.  Things are much better now.  And, the public is more multicultural now. There is less discrimination.  People are more comfortable than they were before."

He said that Hamilton Cab does 1.5 million trips a year, and there have only been two serious physical assaults on drivers — including the Sajad attack — during the past four years. 

Chahal also said that his company does not keep records on verbal attacks or insults because those are "part of the job."

Hamilton Cab, according to Chahal, offers a training course that offers detailed information on safety; things like how to de-escalate a situation by changing the radio station or reminding rowdy passengers that they're on camera.

But the best defence against a violent encounter, he said, is common sense.

"Never, ever get out to chase a runner at night.  It's not worth it for a fare.  Stay inside the vehicle."

Abbas, however, said that getting out of a taxi during the course of a shift is all but inevitable.

"The majority of the time we leave the cab because we have to help the customer with their groceries or their packages. Sometimes if people have difficulty moving so we have to open doors for them."

"You have to use common sense, of course," Abbas added. "But that means leaving the cab to sometimes get fares."

Driving a cab 'terribly stressful'

While waiting for a passenger at the corner of James Street and King Street, cabbie Habeeb Mohamed chuckled when asked how the attack on Sajad affected him.

He said that four years ago, at the corner of Main and Sherman, someone put a knife to his throat and demanded money.

"But I was at the beginning of my shift and I didn't have any.  We went back and forth: 'Give me money!' 'I don't have any!' 'Give me money!'"

Mohamed said that the man — a young person in his early twenties, he guesses — eventually gave up and ran away.

He said that the assault on Sajad triggered the feelings of insecurity he felt immediately after his own incident.

"It can be a terribly frightening and terribly stressful job," he said, while sliding his key into the ignition.

"But what can you do? I have to work."