Once again, a taxi driver has been killed -- two in fact, within a three-day span, both stabbed to death in the greater Toronto area. And once again, Terry Smythe anticipates a flurry of brief interest.
It happens every time, says Mr. Smythe, a retired member of the Manitoba Taxi Cab Board who from his Winnipeg home maintains a Web site promoting safety for Canada's estimated 12,000-plus cab drivers.
"There is intense agitated reaction for about a week; it's a fairly standard cycle," he said. "Intense media reporting of how dangerous it is to drive a taxi cab and all the safety measures. Then all goes quiet until the next tragedy."
While there is plenty of talk, Mr. Smythe said, there is painfully little progress in implementing solutions, whether these be the installation of protective plastic shields, in-car cameras or -- his preferred option -- the adoption of a cashless payment system.
In all instances, he suggests, the reticence about safety measures boils down to a single factor: cost.
As far as can be gauged, just three taxi drivers were slain in Canada last year -- in Vancouver, Fredericton and Toronto. (Across the United States, there were about 40 such killings.) Then, sharp on the heels of last Thursday's killing of Mahommadullah Saighani in Toronto came the New Year's Day slaying of Baljinder Singh in nearby Brampton.
In the absence of any comprehensive national data, it is hard to assess how many scores of other cabbies have been assaulted, robbed or otherwise ripped off.
What is clear, however, is that a sizable majority of those who drive a cab -- working long hours for notoriously low pay -- are drawn from the ranks of the economic have-nots.
Step into a cab in one of Canada's largest cities, for instance, and the chances are high that the driver will be a recent non-white immigrant who has been unable to find other work.
Men are overwhelmingly likely to be behind the wheel, for reasons equally easy to discern.
"It's because of some of the safety considerations," acknowledged Al Enders, owner of Calgary's Checker Cabs Ltd. and a past president of the Canadian Taxicab Association, the national owners group.
In an increasingly cashless society, taxi drivers are perhaps more and more vulnerable.
Whereas most taxi drivers in western cities such as Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Regina are owner-operators, the great majority of cabbies in Toronto and Montreal lease their vehicles and thus have no say about safety measures.
Mr. Smythe and Mr. Enders have strikingly different views of the efficacy of the various safety options available.
Mr. Smythe believes stepped-up safety is long overdue.
Mr. Enders, who thinks driver education is the best solution, likens the situation to that of gun control: Wholesale reform entails a cumbersome, expensive procedure that penalizes the law-abiding citizen while providing little deterrent to the determined criminal.
Where all can agree, however, is that the implementation of meaningful safety measures has moved at a snail's pace.
For all the discussion about protective plastic shields separating driver from passenger, Mr. Smythe said he is unaware of a single shield having been installed in Canada.
It has not been for lack of interest. In Winnipeg, a city regulation has been in place since 1989 making the installation of such shields mandatory -- as soon as the local industry can agree on a design.
More than a decade later, no prototype has yet been adopted, and an explanation for the reluctance is not hard to deduce.
All concur that no one likes shields very much -- not the owners, not the drivers, not the passengers.
In contrast with London cabs, which have long been constructed with built-in shields, North American cabs have to be retrofitted, creating a cramped space that many passengers find unpleasant.
Add to that the cost factor. A simple, cheap divider can be installed for $400 to $1,200. But a shield allowing heat or air conditioning to flow into the back of the vehicle will run the owner up to about $1,800.
Given that shields are unpopular, their installation would probably have to be universal within a city.
However, even if they were mandatory, such dividers would offer scant protection, Mr. Enders said.
"Anybody who wants to rob [a cabbie] will find a way to do it. What they do is entice the driver out of the car. If they believe the cab driver is worth hitting they'll find a way to hit, and they've been fairly ingenious about that in the U.S."
But that's not the picture to emerge in Baltimore, Md. In 1996, after similar initiatives in New York and Los Angeles years before, shields were made mandatory among the city's 1,151 licensed drivers. Assaults on drivers in that year fell by a dramatic 56 per cent compared with 1995, when only about half the cabs had shields, research found.
A more long-term study spanning from 1991 (when just 5 per cent of Baltimore's taxis had plexiglass shields) to 1997 recorded an 88-per-cent decline in attacks on cab drivers.
Even allowing for the general fall in crime seen in virtually all U.S. cities, the drop still appears striking.
But even among cab drivers in Calgary, which has suffered a small wave of savage nighttime attacks on drivers in recent weeks, enthusiasm for the shields appears muted.
"There's a segment within Calgary that wants the shields and there's a segment that doesn't," Mr. Enders said.
In Toronto, similarly, taxi owners overwhelmingly rejected the installation of plexiglass shields about seven years ago, partly because of the cost -- then about $450 a vehicle -- but partly because they said it would make their job very dull if they could not talk to passengers, Toronto Councillor Howard Moscoe said.
A second solution is the installation of in-car video cameras, costing $1,000 to $1,600 apiece, which are also all but non-existent in Canadian cabs.
Here, too, Mr. Enders is unconvinced there would be much tangible benefit.
Many drugstores, gas bars and banks have such devices, he noted. "Has that deterred [criminals] from hitting them? I'd say the answer is no."
Mr. Smythe thinks otherwise.
In Australian cities, he said, the use of such cameras has been "a total success. . . . In many cities, like Perth for example, it's 100 per cent mandatory and they have some hard data on would-be robbers caught on camera, with an image of sufficient clarity, the time and date stamped, to support adequate evidence for court purposes."
But there is a third option available, Mr. Smythe said. "The single most decisive action the industry can take to protect its own drivers is the cashless taxi."
To a great extent, such a system is already functioning, in the shape of credit cards and debit cards. But because there are still plenty of consumers who do not use either, Mr. Smythe advocates the adoption of a system of chits, or vouchers, such as are already dispensed by some government agencies.
By making cab rides a mostly cashless business (aside from tips perhaps) and by heavily publicizing the change, would-be robbers would at a stroke be deprived of a major target.
The long-term decline in bank robberies has almost certainly occurred for precisely the same reason: diminishing returns. Rarely does a modern bank have more than a few hundred dollars in its tills at any given time.
There is, however, a major catch in the adoption of a cashless taxi-payment system: It leaves an easily audited paper trail that some drivers will be reluctant to leave behind.
No one suggests that more than a small minority of cab drivers are dishonest. Nonetheless, in line with plenty of other areas of the economy, there exists an informal, underground payment system whereby driver and passenger agree on a fixed rate for a journey, the meter stays switched off and the driver pockets the money.
"This is an issue that hasn't received a whole lot of attention," Mr. Smythe said. "For every fare that is hidden from the meters, from the records, there is a companion theft of the GST embedded within it. Since 1990, when GST was introduced, the amounts of money must by now be mammoth."
With that said, he still thinks cashless transactions would be an improvement on the status quo.
Steps to upgrade cab safety in Toronto will be the top priority of the city's new licensing committee once it begins to implement its mandate of overseeing the taxi industry, said Mr. Moscoe, who chairs the committee.
The committee, born about a year ago when the Metro Licensing Commission was disbanded, has yet to meet. Consisting of five councillors and the chairman of the Taxicab Advisory Committee, which represents the industry, it has spent the past six months squabbling but has now sorted itself out, Mr. Moscoe said.
He said the largest obstacle in implementing any safety measures is that ownership of cabs in the Toronto area is spread so widely, with some companies comprising just a handful of vehicles.
In the meantime, taxi drivers must largely rely on their own intuition in deciding whom to pick up.
In Toronto for the past three years, all licensed cab drivers now get help on how to make that decision through a compulsory three-week training course that teaches them how to detect potentially unsafe situations and protect themselves.
Burnett Shaw, an independent Toronto driver with 23 years experience, said a cabbie's best defence is instinct. "You have to pick and choose. You don't know who is who and who is a crook and who has a gun, but you develop an instinct."
Tomy Stathopolos, another Toronto cabbie, said that since he was robbed at knifepoint, he has learned to be selective about whom he picks up. "For me, you don't pick up just anybody."
But that can help only so much. Danger may just be part of the business.
"Can cabbies have risk-free rides?" asked Richard Mucha, manager of the taxi unit for the city's municipal licensing division. "I'm not sure that's feasible."
Timothy Appleby is a national crime reporter with The Globe and Mail.
Toronto -- Paul Murray has had too many brushes with violence.
After 13 years on Calgary's streets, where five taxi drivers have been brutally assaulted in as many weeks, he is surrendering his cabbie licence.
"No job is worth risking your life for," said the 37-year-old Calgary resident, who called it quits after his Monday-night shift in favour of a job with a trucking company. "There were lots of times when I was scared out of my mind and I really had to keep my wits about me or who knows what could have happened?"
It has become an all-too-common refrain from taxi drivers from Halifax to Toronto to Calgary after a series of violent slayings and assaults cast a long shadow over the industry.
Yesterday, that refrain turned into an angry chorus in Toronto. Cries of "We want justice" and honking horns filled the air as drivers took turns voicing their fears about safety on the job.
Drivers, their families and friends of murdered cab driver Mohammadullah Saighani, one of two drivers slain in Toronto in less than a week, came out to support calls for better security in the cab industry.
"I am here to stand up and support my father," Mr. Saighani's daughter Yasamin, 26, said, sobbing. "I want justice. I want them to find my father's killer."
"I think it's going to continue if we don't stand up and do something about it right now," another daughter, Khatira, 15, said.
Eight-year-old Masood Ajiz, whose father drives a cab, said he is worried. "I don't want my dad to die," he said.
A visibly angry Pirooz Fateh, a driver for Beck Taxis, went one step further, saying that it's getting to the point at which drivers will have to arm themselves.
"If the police can't protect us, we have to protect ourselves. We'll have to bring a gun or something else," he said.
Yesterday's rally in Toronto after 2,700 outraged cab drivers threatened strike action in Calgary the week of New Year's Eve and came together to protest against a string of savage nighttime attacks on drivers. The latest victim received a deep cut to his hand after driving four youths to a northeast Calgary address on Monday night.
It's much the same story in Halifax, a city also beset by assaults in recent months.
Tim Auld, general manager of Satellite Taxi/Arrow Cab in Halifax, said most attacks have been connected with robberies, including a murder three months ago.
"It was really difficult to get anyone to work over the recent holiday. We're having difficulty servicing customers at night because [drivers] don't want to put themselves at risk because of the violence," Mr. Auld said.
Still, many are searching for an explanation for the recent upsurge in violence, which some people say is the worst in nearly a decade.
"There appears to be no rhyme or reason to it," said Jim Bell, general manager of Diamond Taxi in Toronto, where two cabbies were murdered last week. "Most of the violence appears to be random."
In Calgary, Roger Richard, president of Associated Cabs and chairman of a newly formed industry task force looking into improving driver safety, said most violence begins with a simple fight. Battles over whether clients can smoke or eat in the cab, or the driver's knowledge of the city, often escalate into violence.
"More than 98 per cent of the incidents start with an argument. It's hardly ever related to a robbery," Mr. Richard said.
The recent attacks in Calgary began on Dec. 12. One driver who was bludgeoned with a hammer and robbed is still in a coma.
A task force studying the problem in Calgary announced yesterday that the city's taxi companies are now considering installing partial plastic shields in their cabs, a security measure also being bandied about as a possible solution in Halifax and Toronto.
However, Mr. Bell blames police, in part, for the rising violence in the industry. He said police aren't doing enough to help drivers.
"Police and drivers need to work as a team, and right now that's not happening," Mr. Bell said, adding that police often turn up an hour after an attack.
Toronto -- Until this past week, no Toronto-area cabbie had been killed on duty since 1993, but robberies, carjackings, beatings and stabbings were hazards of the job.
Abuhana Quraishi, who was attacked and robbed in North York two months ago, almost became a homicide statistic alongside an Etobicoke driver who was found slashed to death on Dec. 30 and a Brampton driver who was fatally stabbed on Jan. 1.
Mr. Quraishi, 42, was stabbed 15 times but survived, losing a piece of intestine and partial use of his right hand.
The crime is unsolved. Detective Phil Bratton of 33 Division, who is still investigating, described it last night:
Mr. Quraishi, driving for Able-Atlantic Taxi, was flagged down on the night of Nov. 7 by a man who told him to go to Railside Road, near Lawrence Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway. When they got there, "the fellow grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back and held the knife to the side of his head -- that's when he made the demand for money," Det. Bratton said.
"The fellow then poked Mr. Quraishi in the left side of the head by his ear with the knife, and that's when Mr. Quraishi felt that he was going to get stabbed right into his head and he made a grab for the knife and the fight was on."
It is amazing that he did not die. "He was stabbed once in the face, which went through through his chin, deflecting off his chin bone and coming out underneath his chin, and then he was stabbed twice in the chest, once in the abdomen and then about 10 times in the back," the detective said, not counting the original head wound and defensive wounds to his hands.
The Etobicoke and Brampton killings do not appear to be connected, but Det. Bratton said there may be a connection between the attack on Mr. Quraishi and the Etobicoke case. He talked to the investigators on that case by phone yesterday and will meet them today or tomorrow to compare notes, he said.
Mr. Quraishi, who had been robbed twice before, did not return to taxi driving. "No, he didn't come back at all," Able-Atlantic general manager Joe Than said last night.
Toronto -- The two young men ignored the dozens of eyes glaring at them in anger through the chain-link fence.
But the hostility of about four dozen cab drivers followed the two teenagers as they got out of two police vehicles and took the few dozen steps that led them into a Brampton courthouse for their first court appearance in the death of taxi driver Baljinder Singh Rai on New Year's Day.
Dressed in white prison-issued jumpsuits, Michael MacDonald, 18, and Stefan Miceli, 19, appeared briefly at the provincial courthouse on Clarence Street on charges of first-degree murder. They were remanded in custody until their next court date on Jan. 20.
The two teens, who showed little emotion as they arrived in handcuffs, were a study in contrasts: one stocky, his hair cropped close at the top, with the sides shaved; the other lean, with straggly dark hair almost to his shoulders.
The cab drivers shut down their meters yesterday and stood for several hours in the bitter wind and cold for a glimpse of the men who stand accused of killing the friend and colleague they described as a "very nice man."
One of those drivers was B. J. Singh, who has driven a cab for City Taxi for the past four years. "I came here to see the men," Mr. Singh said as he waited by the fence where prisoners are brought to the courthouse. "In two or three years they'll come out. That's not enough punishment," he said, expressing the same bitterness about the justice system as fellow cab drivers, although the two men have not been convicted of the killing.
At a news conference yesterday, Inspector Tom Slinger of Peel Regional Police's homicide bureau, described the final minutes of life for the 48-year-old father of two sons, aged 18 and 21.
Mr. Rai was driving a Brampton-Bramalea Kwik Kab shortly after 10:45 p.m. on Saturday when he picked up two men in the transit- terminal area in downtown Brampton and drove them to the rear of the Gateway Plaza on Queen Street near Gateway Boulevard.
Insp. Slinger said that when Mr. Rai stopped the cab to let out his fares in the parking lot behind a restaurant, one of the men took out a knife and stabbed him twice, once in the neck. They took his wallet, leading police to believe the motive was robbery, and fled on foot.
Despite his wounds, Mr. Rai managed to drive the cab to the front of the plaza, where some people came to his aid. He died a short time later in hospital.
Insp. Slinger said the intense news-media interest in the stabbing death generated tips which eventually led to the arrest of two men at an apartment on Lisa Street in the Dixie and Queen Streets area of Brampton on Monday night.
The two teenagers are known to police, Insp. Slinger said.
Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Miceli were both raised in Brampton but had no fixed address when arrested. Both were unemployed.
Mr. Rai did not know the two accused, Insp. Slinger said.
Police in Peel and in Toronto say there is no connection between Mr. Rai's death and the killing of Mohammadullah Saighani, a self- employed driver with Beck Taxi, some time between 5 p.m. on Dec. 29 and 8:45 a.m. Dec. 30.
The body of Mr. Saighani, who was buried on Monday, was found in an industrial area in northwest Toronto on Thursday morning. His throat had been slashed and a thumb cut off. He was the first driver in the Toronto region to be killed while on duty since 1993.
Defensive wounds on the body indicated that the 48-year-old father of five tried to fight back in what Detective Cory Bockus of Toronto Police described as an "extremely violent and brutal murder."
She told reporters yesterday that police believe that given the brutality of the attack, in which the murderer used a very sharp knife, it's likely the killer fled the scene with noticeable wounds to the upper body or face. A forensic team is now scouring the cab for DNA evidence, she added.
While the cab drivers waited outside the courthouse yesterday, about 150 other drivers protested in front of Toronto Police headquarters on College Street. They gathered to demand justice for their two slain colleagues and better protection for themselves.
While the drivers vented their frustration outside the pink marble edifice, police were calling on the cab community to help solve the Saighani murder.
Det. Bockus asked the demonstrators to call police if they had seen Mr. Saighani's green-and-orange cab between 6 a.m. Dec. 30 and 7:15 a.m., when it was spotted at the Kipling Heights plaza.
"There is one hour when we don't know where the cab was," she said. "We need information from the cab community. A lot of people who might have been driving might be able to help," she said.
Toronto -- Two men were arrested last night in connection with the New Year's Day stabbing death of a taxi driver in Brampton. Earlier, hundreds of drivers gathered to say goodbye to a colleague slain last week in Toronto, and to share their fears about what many say is Canada's riskiest profession.
The Brampton arrests came at about 8 p.m., less than 48 hours after Baljinder Singh Rai, a 48-year-old father of two, was found bleeding to death.
Homicide investigators withheld details last night except to say that an apartment was being searched on Lisa Street, roughly halfway between the bus terminal where Mr. Rai picked up his last customers and the commercial-industrial area where he was found.
At Brampton-Bramalea Quik Kab, for which Mr. Rai drove, night dispatcher Verma Sarbjeet called the arrests good news. "It's very good for the community here in Brampton. It's good for the taxi industry -- at least the police caught the two suspects very soon. The police worked very hard. We appreciate the Peel police for this."
Mr. Rai's sister, Harmeet Dhaliwal, agreed. "This is good for all the citizens. It's not [only] for us, you know. My brother is not going to come back."
There is no indication the two killings were connected, although both men were stabbed or slashed and left in empty parking lots in commercial or industrial areas northwest of downtown Toronto.
Yesterday afternoon, drivers and their cabs clogged a section of the Toronto's Kipling Avenue north of Highway 401 as about 800 family members and friends prayed for Mohammadullah Saighani inside the Ummah Nabawiah Mosque.
The 48-year-old father of five was found stabbed to death on Thursday morning. After a traditional Muslim funeral service, his flower-laden casket was carried out of the mosque by a crowd of men chanting "Allah Akbar" -- "God is Great." As the body was whisked away for burial, many of the taxi drivers accompanied the funeral procession.
Mr. Saighani's children expressed shock that their gentle father would meet such a violent end.
"My dad wouldn't hurt a fly. He didn't deserve to die this way," 15-year-old daughter Khatira said.
Mr. Saighani was found with his throat slashed. His cab was found abandoned a few kilometres away.
Nine years ago, he traded his career as a doctor in war-torn Afghanistan to drive a cab in what he thought was a safe, secure Canada.
Yesterday, Khatira said her father put his family first at his own peril.
"Imagine going from being a doctor to being a taxi driver. He accepted the situation because he wanted safety [for his family]."
Ramin Saighani, 18, called his father his "best friend" and said that the family wants the killers caught.
"Every single person who was here probably feels the same way as I do. They feel fire inside," the teenager said after the funeral.
Another daughter, Yasamin, 26, expressed outrage as she propped up her pale mother on the carpets inside the mosque. "I want for them to find his killer and then cut his throat like they did my father," she said.
Mr. Saighani's wife, Nafesa, who fainted several times yesterday, said, "I don't know if I'm alive or I'm dead," and then broke into tears.
She said that the night before he was killed, her husband came home from work shaken after a man had approached his cab while he was counting his fares, knocked on his window and asked whether he made good money.
Fear is something that cab drivers said they live with as part of a job they say is more dangerous than policing.
Driving a taxi was recently rated the most dangerous job in Canada, said Nabil Charbel of the Ontario Taxi Union, which has 1,300 members in Toronto. About 23 per cent of cab drivers become the victims of crime on the job, compared with about 7 per cent of police officers, he said.
"What the problem is, is we are treated as third-class citizens, not just second-class citizens," he said.
Mr. Charbel said he wants legislation to improve safety, although he didn't say specifically what kind of law he would like to see.
"You can't help but wonder how many tragedies like this one it will take for government bodies to legislate safety into the workplace, which in this case is the car," he said.
Cabbies waiting in the damp air outside the overflowing mosque agreed that something must be done to improve safety, but there was no consensus on what.
Driver Saed Soltenpour said recent changes to the bylaws that govern the taxi industry, such as mandatory new cabs and meters that spit out receipts, ignore safety. "We need a bill of rights for cabbies, even if we have to take it to the United Nations Human Rights Commission," he said.
Waiss Wali, a driver for Able Atlantic, said the two killings in one week have him worried. "Who will be the third?" he asked.