Wednesday March 15, 2017

Woman sexually assaulted in a cab says it happens more than we think

Taxi driver Bassam Al-Rawi appears in Halifax court during his sexual assault trial in February 2017. His eventual acquittal sparked outrage across Canada.

Taxi driver Bassam Al-Rawi appears in Halifax court during his sexual assault trial in February 2017. His eventual acquittal sparked outrage across Canada. (Jeff Harper/Metro Halifax)

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Canadian women grow up with the idea that a taxi is a safe way home if they are out late at night, or at the bar.

But a number of recent stories about sexual assault by cab drivers has some questioning this mode of transport.

There are no national or provincial statistics on the number of allegations.

But The Current's search for reports of sexual assaults by cab drivers on their clients — both allegations and convictions — shows incidents right across the country: 17 investigations in Montreal in 2014, for example; and in 2016, at least nine reported cases, in cities from Victoria, B.C., to Antigonish, N.S. In at least two of those cases, the drivers have been convicted.

The Current spoke to one Toronto woman sexually assaulted by a driver. We are not using her name to protect her identity.

"I had been drinking and it was late so I fell asleep in the taxi," she tells Anna Maria Tremonti.

"When I woke up, the taxi had pulled over to the side of the road.  I didn't know where we were. The taxi driver had lifted my sweater and my shirt and my bra.  And he was kissing me and touching me and slobbering all over my chest and my face. As soon as I woke up, he stopped."

The driver was later convicted. But the incident changed her perception of taking a taxi.

'It had never occurred to me that a taxi cab would be a dangerous place for me.' - Victim of sexual assault in a Canadian taxi

Rita Smith administrates the complaints and compliments line of the Toronto Taxi Alliance, which represents the industry in the city. She is also the group's former executive director.

She calls the incident "inexcusable," and adds, "Nobody wants guys like that out of the industry quicker and more stringently than the cab industry does."

Smith points out that since taking the position at the complaints line in August 2016, she hasn't received any reports of sexual assaults by drivers in Toronto. She adds that drivers go through rigorous screening.

Farrah Khan is the coordinator of Ryerson University's Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education. She says few women who have been sexually assaulted report the incident, and that the lack of complaints to the industry hotline may not tell the whole story.

She would like to see more frequent screening and criminal record checks of taxi drivers, as well as specific training for them on violence against women.

"We can't blame the people who take [taxis]," she tells Anna Maria Tremonti. "We have to actually hold the companies — be it Uber, be it taxis — accountable."

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese and Sujata Berry.