Saturday, June 23, 2007

A dangerous job, no safety training

From the Kingston Whig-Standard website

Rob Tripp
Saturday, June 23, 2007

Local News
- Veteran Kingston cabbie Gary Buckingham tapped his left eyebrow with an extended first finger.

"I had my face slashed about 18 years ago," he said, pointing to a thin white scar where his brow once gaped open and blood streamed down his face.

He was picking up revellers after a Christmas party. A man became incensed when Buckingham said his car was full and the man would have to wait for another taxi.

The guy flipped out, recalled Buckingham, sitting behind the wheel of Amey's car 22.

"He jumped on top of the car and grabbed the top sign," he said.

The man swung a piece of the plastic sign into the open driver's side window, striking Buckingham above the eye.

"I got out to get at him and he hit me so hard with the door that he knocked me senseless."

The attacker was subdued, police were called and Buckingham was stitched up. Nearly two decades later, he still enjoys driving a cab and is philosophical about the risks, despite the killing of a fellow Amey's driver six days ago, in what is likely the first cabbie murder in Kingston.

"The best self-defence is common sense," he said.

Buckingham avoids "bad addresses" and "bad fares," the people who are known in the industry as troublemakers.

There's no safety training program for cabbies.

"There's just the school of hard knocks," he said.

There are no mandatory safety measures in Kingston taxis. No cars, in any of the city's firms, are outfitted with cameras or partitions, safety gear now prevalent in many big city taxis across North America.

Although assaults and robberies of Kingston cabbies aren't unusual, Buckingham isn't sure new safety measures are needed. The partitions, plexiglass screens that partially or fully separate passengers from the driver, would be costly, he believes.

"It's going to have to come out in [increased] fares and I don't think customers are willing to swallow it," he said.

Some drivers believe partitions and other safety improvements are long overdue.

"Where it stands right now, the taxi industry doesn't [care] about our safety," driver Dennis Keefe said, the day his friend David Krick was murdered.

Krick, 50, a veteran Amey's driver, died on Father's Day, after he was stabbed in the chest several times by a man he picked up on Wright Crescent near the YMCA just after 6:30 a.m.

The murder was foreseeable, said Terry Smythe, a Winnipeg man who has crusaded for cabbie safety.

A retired member of the Manitoba Taxi Cab Board, the agency that regulates the industry in Winnipeg, Smythe said taxi industry leaders and regulators in Kingston should have anticipated such a tragedy.

"It's absolutely shameful that it takes a murder to produce a response," he said.

Safety improvements are shunned, he said, because people in the business don't want to spend the money necessary to protect drivers, who are in abundant supply.

"What [they] get is a relentless supply of people prepared to put themselves in harm's way," he said.

Taxi driving is the most dangerous occupation in the world, he believes.

Numbers from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics back the claim.

The centre, using police figures, tracks homicides by occupation.

Between 1995 and 2005, 25 Canadian taxi drivers were murdered, more than any other legal occupation.

The second-highest occupational homicide level is among police officers. In the same 10-year period, 18 police officers were killed.

A national study completed in 1996, funded by the Justice Department, found that the victimization of taxi drivers may be 20 times higher than Canadians generally.

Hundreds of drivers were interviewed for the study. More than half indicated that they did not think their employers took seriously enough the risks they face.

The best safety measures, Smythe said, are in-cab cameras and safety shields or partitions. The cameras must be highly visible, to act as a deterrent.

It is easy, he said, for regulators to make the measures mandatory and impose a small, short-term surcharge to pay for them. Both should be installed at the same time.

There's evidence that the measures work.

In Winnipeg, cameras became mandatory in 2002, after a spate of violent attacks on cabbies and murders. Shields became mandatory by 2003. Robberies of cabbies dropped nearly 80 per cent, compared to 2001. There has not been a murder of a Winnipeg cabbie since.

In 1999, Toronto required all cabs to have cameras or global positioning systems.

Assaults and robberies declined significantly. Last year, cameras became mandatory in all Toronto taxis, but a debate about making shields mandatory in all cars is unresolved.

Two Toronto cabbies have been murdered in the past two years.

Almost all cabs and delivery vehicles in New York City have shields or cameras. In the early '90s, before the measures were in place, 30 to 40 New York cabbies were murdered each year. Now murders are rare.

Only Amey's taxis in Kingston are equipped with the global positioning systems that track a taxi's location. Smythe said it is not a safety measure.

"All it tells you is where to find the dead driver," he said.

Since most taxi passengers don't know the cars have GPS, it serves no deterrent purpose, Smythe said.

Kingston Police have said that the GPS information provided by Amey's has been invaluable in tracing the movements of Krick's killer.

The power to impose mandatory safety measures falls to the Kingston area taxi commission, an independent body established by provincial law.

It is overseen by a seven-member board. The commission issues licences and administers tests to drivers.

There are roughly 200 licensed taxis in the area.

Longtime member and chairman Ken Matthews wants to hear what people who work in the industry think should be done.

"I'm a great believer that those who work in the industry know the industry," he said.

The commission meets next week and is expected to discuss safety.

"Everybody's very emotional," Matthews said.

He's not sure there's strong support for the installation of shields.

"The drivers don't want to be boxed in with this plexiglass across the back," he said.

Former taxi driver Doug Teeple, recently appointed to the commission, believes some drivers want the partitions, but overall the local industry does not.

"If they do want them, believe me, I will fight for it," he said.

Mark Greenwood, owner of Amey's, said this is a sad week for the industry, but there's lots of talk about safety.

"I'm willing to look at anything that will make our drivers more secure," he said.

Debby Timmons, who has worked as a dispatcher and driver for roughly 20 years, said new measures are needed.

"I think the shields are great protection, however I don't think the industry here can support that," she said.

She said retrofitting small taxis with shields will limit the number of passengers that can be carried.

She favours a system that allows a driver to lock her two-way radio into the transmit position in an emergency, so that a dispatcher can hear what is happening in the car.

In Barrie, municipal authorities have offered a $50 rebate to all cab owners who install a flashing light on the exterior of the car. It can be activated by the driver in an emergency, signalling to anyone who sees the taxi that the driver needs help.

"I think that's the stupidest thing," said Erwin Giles, owner of Barrie Taxi, the region's largest cab company.

Giles fears that a driver who parks his or her car close to a building and then activates the light will only escalate a confrontation, since the flashing light would be visible to a taxi passenger, particularly at night.

Giles said he's about to test in-cab cameras in two of his taxis.

The cars will be equipped with a three-camera array, including one camera that looks forward out of the taxi.

"I see them as a real great safety measure," he said.

At $1,500 per car, it will cost him $120,000 to equip his 80-car fleet, but he expects he will put the cameras in all cars once the test is done.

The measure comes six years after one of Giles' drivers was murdered.

Gary Newman, a 49-year-old father of four, was stabbed to death after picking up a passenger who called from a phone booth on the outskirts of Barrie late at night.

A 25-year-old man was caught two years later and convicted.

The killing, the second Barrie taxi-driver murder in an eight-year span, did not spark demands for more security, Giles said, since people in the industry understand the risks.

"In this business, you never know," he said.

After Newman's murder in 2001, the company installed a voice-recording system for all incoming calls to the dispatch centre and also installed GPS in all taxis.

Giles said he doesn't believe there's any support for shields.

"Nobody wants them, they're too impersonal," he said. "It takes away the customer service thing."

In Guelph, a city about the size of Kingston, there are no safety measures in taxis.

None of the more than 40 Red Top taxis has shields and just one car has a camera, installed by its owner.

"We don't have a lot of problems," said president Mike Humphries.

Red Top cars also use GPS.

Humphries said they have a practice that they believe is a valuable safety technique. Drivers are instructed to frequently drop money at the office to ensure they carry only a small amount of cash. The fact is well known in the community, to deter thieves seeking a big score.

"The best thing you can do," he said.

Despite the measures, drivers remain targets.

"About two months ago, we had a driver robbed at knifepoint," he said. The driver was not hurt and the robber was caught by police.

Kingston Police are still hunting David Krick's killer.

David Krick murder
Police seek public's help

Anyone with information can call the Major Crime Unit at 613-549-4660; 1-888-573-8477; Email

A map of the route David Krick's car followed is on the Kingston Police website,

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