A CBC News I-Team investigation has found wheelchair taxi drivers in Winnipeg not properly securing wheelchairs and not offering safety belts to passengers.
With the help of a volunteer passenger, the I-Team captured hidden camera video from wheelchair van trips with three companies.
In all three cases, the taxi drivers did not follow Manitoba's safety regulations for transporting people in wheelchairs.
"It makes you feel less valuable, more disposable. It's a feeling that most of us with disabilities are used to, unfortunately," said Laurie Helgason, a Winnipeg wheelchair user who agreed to help the I-Team with the test.
Passengers under the age of 18 must wear a shoulder strap — also called an occupant restraint — which acts as a seatbelt.
When it comes to adult passengers in wheelchairs, the driver must offer the use of a shoulder strap and help the passenger attach the belt if help is requested.
The first test was a call to Blueline, which operates Handi-Helper Transit.
Helgason was wheeled into the van on a ramp, and the back wheels of her chair were strapped in properly.
However, the front of her chair was strapped in by the foot rest, which could easily come off.
When it came to the shoulder strap, the driver did not offer one.
The second company tested was Unicity Taxi Ltd.
In that case, the Unicity driver secured the back of the chair correctly.
But like the Blueline driver, the Unicity driver also missed the correct hooks on the front of Helgason's chair.
As the Unicity van drove away, Helgason asked the driver about a belt for her safety:
- Helgason: "Do you have a belt for me?"
- Driver: "No."
The third trip was with Spring Taxi. The driver simply rolled Helgason's chair up the ramp and into the van, then closed the back door and drove away.
The Spring driver didn't strap her in at all — not her chair and not her person.
After the trip, Helgason asked the driver why he had not strapped down her wheelchair, which is a motorized type:
- Helgason: "Do you only tie down the manual wheelchairs? Is that how that works?"
- Driver: "Yeah, we only tie down the manual wheelchairs. This one actually is safe."
- Helgason: "Is safe … you don't have to tie it down?"
- Driver: "No, we don't have to. If you really want to, we do."
- Helgason: "Oh, OK."
- Driver: "That's why I asked you if you're OK. If you're not comfortable. you can ask to tie down."
- Helgason: "Oh, I see."
- Driver: "But anyway, it's a machine one — it's safe."
In fact, the regulations say all wheelchairs have to be properly secured to the vehicle.
The management of Spring Taxi did not respond to requests from CBC News to talk about the investigation findings.
Blueline, Unicity officials respond
Blueline manager Victor Kumar recalled in an interview how his company was a pioneer of transportation services for physically challenged passengers, dating back to the 1970s.
CBC News showed Kumar the hidden camera video of his driver, and he acknowledged that the front foot rest was not the proper place to secure the wheelchair.
"Foot rests do come off. That's not the way to do it. It's not the way to be done," he said, adding he will talk to his driver about it.
Kumar also acknowledged that drivers should be offering to attach the shoulder harness belts.
Kumar said his employees are trained properly and receive refresher courses. He added that he's surprised by the I-Team's findings, emphasizing that safety is Blueline's top priority.
"That's what we're specializing [in], transporting those physically challenged people. That's our top priority, the safety," Kumar said. "Feedback is always good from the client. We try to do our best."
CBC News showed the hidden camera footage of the Unicity Taxi test to company president Gurmail Mangat, who said the driver shown in the video is experienced and careful.
Responding to the wheelchair not being properly strapped down, Mangat said his driver may have been out of practice because the company has only four wheelchair vans in its fleet and doesn't get a lot of calls for that type of service.
Regarding the fact that the driver did not offer Helgason a shoulder strap, Mangat said he would look into that and ask the driver what happened.
Taxicab board emphasizes need for restraints
The chair of the Manitoba Taxicab Board, Bruce Buckley, reinforces the need for occupant restraints.
"You have to have the special belts in the vehicle," Buckley told CBC News.
"That's what our inspectors look for — that those belts are there and are functional. And if they're not there, then the vehicle is taken out of service."
Unicity's Mangat said his company's drivers will help passengers with safety belts.
"We have a responsibility to take care of this. An adult is supposed to know himself. But still, when our driver sees someone, they ask him what they can do for them. For courtesy, they do it," said Mangat.
Mangat added that his employees get the training and certification required by the regulator, the taxicab board.
"Our job is the safety of our customers … our drivers are very careful and very customer-oriented, friendly; they do their best," he said.
But Mangat said the taxicab board, as the regulator that licenses taxis in Winnipeg, has a responsibility to be more vigilant with safety inspections.
"If they don't have enough manpower or they don't do their job, then we get blamed for that," he said.
Buckley said the taxicab board does inspections twice a year to make sure all the restraints are in place and are working. The board also oversees training courses for drivers.
Buckley said if the board learns of ongoing safety issues, it can clamp down.
"If, as you say, there are some chronic issues, then we can step up the enforcement," he said.
"If it means pulling over handi-vans while they're on a call, we can do that to ensure that people are properly belted."
'I am vocal,' says passenger
Helgason said she would like to see consequences for wheelchair taxi drivers and companies that don't follow the rules.
"I think part of it is drivers think … it's just OK to do it, not a big deal, nobody's going to say anything, especially when it's someone who doesn't speak up. I am vocal," she said.
"Drivers sometimes are in a bit of hurry. They think if they drive carefully, nothing will happen. But sometimes it does."
David Sikorski's mother, Nancy Sikorski, died last year after she fell out of her wheelchair in a wheelchair taxi van.
In an interview earlier this week, Sikorski said the findings of the I-Team's investigation are troubling.
"I'm shocked by that. I'm really quite disgusted by that," he said.
"I really hope that the combination of retelling my mom's story and this new info that you've found sends a more powerful message to people who make laws that procedures are not being followed and existing procedures are inadequate," he added.
That sentiment is echoed by Brad Woloshen whose 82-year-old mother died in 1997 following an accident in which she was thrown out of her wheelchair in a taxi van.
"Why? I mean, after two deaths, this should not ever happen again. I mean, it just shouldn't happen again," he sighed.