(Photos contributed by Gary Jakeman)
(Winnipeg, MB, Canada)
25 July 2001
By TAMMY MARLOWE
Cabbies in U.S. cities which have mandated protective shields continue to debate the pros and cons of their effectiveness, comfort and level of security.
"I would really ask you to tell the people there in Winnipeg that the shields are fine -- as long as they remain optional," said taxi driver Diane Santucci, who has negotiated the mean streets of Chicago for the last 14 years. "When they become mandatory, that's when they become a problem."
In Chicago, city officials forced cabbies to install shields in their cars several years ago. Cities such as Baltimore, Md., and Boston, Mass., have enacted similar policies.
No cities in Canada have compulsory shield laws.
Santucci, a member of the Chicago Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, said the safety measure has worked to curb the number of robberies and murders because criminals find them inconvenient and risky for business.
"They don't want to hold a gun up over the shield. It would be in full view; everyone could see it," she said yesterday. "And with a shield they can't just stick a gun in your ribs."
After a rash of cabbie homicides in 1993, the City of New York mandated trouble lights and bullet-resistant shields for all fleet-operated Yellow Medallion taxicabs -- those which can be hailed from the street -- in 1994. Independent owner-operators were not forced to comply.
In 2000, the city expanded its mandatory program to include fleet-operated "livery cars," or vehicles used for pre-arranged rides.
Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner of the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, said he attributes the fact a Medallion cab driver has not been murdered since 1997 to the protective barriers.
"It's not the same industry it was years ago," he said. "We think we've stemmed the tide. For us they're a tried and true option."
Although the shields have proved beneficial in stemming crime, Santucci said many drivers and customers in Chicago are not impressed with the product's design.
"I'm five-foot-one and three-quarters -- I'm fine with the shields. But anyone bigger, when the shield is in the seat can't go all the way back," she explained. "Tall drivers are in agony driving a cab."
The limited leg room also extends to the rear of the car where passengers sit. Santucci said squeezing in and out of the fortified cabs makes a lot of Chicagoans cranky.
CUSTOMERS 'HATE IT'
"They hate it," she said. "I've never heard anyone say that they like it."
Canadian Taxicab Association president John Munro said customers in the back of a shielded cab also can't feel any heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer.
Although he regards safety for cabbies as an important issue, Munro said he doesn't believe shields are the answer.
"If somebody wanted to rob you or kill you, a shield is not going to stop them."
By BRENDAN O'HALLARN
Following a meeting with taxi drivers yesterday when a request was made to make the job safer, Ashton announced a committee will be struck to look at how to implement safety measures in cabs.
"The bottom line is I think we do have to do more for taxi driver safety," he said.
"If anybody doubts it's not real, they should ride in a cab. They should talk to taxi drivers. There's a lot of concern out there about the hazards people face."
After the hour-long meeting, the drivers were optimistic that changes are coming.
"We are working together on this," said Khalid Khan, president of Unicity Taxi. "It was a very positive meeting."
That represents a departure from Sunday's harsh rhetoric from cabbies, who promised to park their cars if the government didn't make safety shields mandatory in all taxis.
Ashton said the group he met made four specific suggestions to make cabs safer -- putting in the shields, mounting video cameras in every taxi, installing distress lights on the outside of vehicles, and improving prosecutions of cab robberies and assaults.
The taxicab board made shields mandatory in 1990, but the regulation was never enforced. Many drivers refused to install them, saying it was bad for business.
Unicity driver Mohinder Gundhu said in order for the shields to work, every driver must be forced to put them in.
The issue of cost wasn't addressed, but Ashton said he isn't averse to the idea of allowing a special levy on fares to pay for the cost of the shields.
"The cost of doing business in the taxi industry is not just having a car and having fuel -- safety is part of it," he said.
The working group studying taxi safety will include members of the profession, along with employees of the Department of Transportation.
Deol, 52, was stabbed to death last week. Three men are in police custody, charged with second-degree murder.
Ashton met with Deol's family Monday night. He said he'd like to create an award in Deol's name for taxi drivers whose heroism often goes unnoticed.
"There are heroes out there, drivers who routinely go above and beyond the call of duty. There should be some recognition," he said.
By Helen Fallding
Transportation Minister Steve Ashton vowed yesterday that cab driver Pritam Deol's murder will not be in vain.
After meeting for more than an hour with representatives of the taxi industry, the minister announced a working group to report by early October on an action plan for cab safety.
Options to be examined include safety shields, security cameras, driver training, and improved policing and prosecution of people who abuse drivers.
"People get robbed once or twice a week," Ashton said.
Cab drivers who attended the meeting seemed satisfied with the outcome.
"The meeting was very positive," said Mohinder Gundhu, who helped organize a rally Sunday to press for mandatory safety shields after Deol was stabbed to death last week in his cab.
The drivers are asking for government help to pay for the $2,000 bullet-proof shields. Ashton said the working group will look at funding options for safety enhancements, but is leaning toward including any costs in the rate structure set by the Manitoba Taxicab Board.
"The cost of doing business in the taxi industry is not just having a car and having fuel -- safety is part of it," Ashton said. "The amount of money relative to the revenues of the industry is not that significant."
No other Canadian province has mandatory shields, but Toronto has looked at installing security cameras.
One jurisdiction in Australia found that thefts and violence dropped 40 per cent after cameras were installed, Ashton said.
Digital cameras, which cost from $1,200 to $2,000, can operate continuously in cabs, taping over old images once the camera's memory is full.
Winnipeg Coun. Harvey Smith, who sits on the Taxicab Board, said drivers should vote on whether they want mandatory safety shields. Voluntary shields do not work because customers who consider the barriers anti-social choose cabs without them, he said.
Smith suggested the province could help make the shields affordable by paying the costs up front and recovering the money from drivers over time.
Ashton said he will name someone within a few days who has the trust of the industry to head the working group.
"I've never seen a more united taxi industry," he noted.
The minister also suggested that awards might be established in Deol's memory to recognize the cab driving heroes who report crimes or save lives.
"It's a very difficult job," Ashton said.
He said the Winnipeg action plan might provide lessons that can be applied to taxis in other Manitoba communities.
The former highways minister said taxi drivers who demonstrated at the Legislative Building on the weekend for mandatory shields have a very legitimate case.
"They have the right to expect their government to take regulatory steps to make it as safe as possible," Praznik said.
The lobby effort comes after Pritam Deol was stabbed to death last week in the front of his cab.
There's nothing to stop taxi owners from installing the shields now, but some drivers do not own their own cabs and have to rely on a company's willingness to spend $2,000 on a bullet-proof shield.
Drivers, who typically earn about $17,000 a year, want the province to help pay for the shields, but Praznik said a fare increase makes more sense. "That's part of the cost of doing business."
A fare increase in the regulated industry could only be justified if all cabs were forced to install the shields, he said. A temporary fare hike might suffice, Praznik suggested.
NDP Transportation Minister Steve Ashton was scheduled to visit with Deol's family yesterday before meeting representatives from the taxi industry today. He declined comment on safety concerns until after his meeting with the family.
By TAMMY MARLOWE
Since the brutal murder of Pritam Deol last week, taxi drivers across the province have been keeping an eye on the push by Winnipeg cabbies for protective shields and other safety measures.
"It's a great idea and I think they should really go for it," said Heiko Zinn, who owns 4-Way Taxi in Brandon. "The province, the city and the industry would all have to put something together in order to get things done and protect the cab drivers."
Deol, a 52-year-old father of four, was stabbed to death early Wednesday morning in the Maples after picking up a trio of men in the North End.
Also last week, a Thompson cab driver was robbed by two youths -- one armed with a baseball bat, the other with a knife. RCMP said the suspects approached the Driftwood Cabs employee about 5:30 a.m. and demanded cash but were denied. The suspects ran off after the cabbie struggled to grab the bat.
A 16-year-old has been charged with robbery, and charges are also pending against a 15-year-old.
Vijay Ralhan has owned Northstar Taxi in Thompson for a little more than a year. Although violence against cabbies in the northern Manitoba city of 15,000 people is uncommon, Ralhan said drivers have no way to protect themselves.
"There's no safety measures, they have no defences," he said. "If somebody takes a knife, we're still not allowed to keep anything with us."
Arrow Portage Taxi owner Mike Vey said drivers in his company's 15 cabs are trained to use a specific code over their radios if they ever find themselves in trouble.
But sometimes it's not enough. Two weeks ago, one of Vey's employees was held up in the car and robbed of his cash.
"It makes the drivers all that much extra careful," Vey said. "It's always on their minds that it could happen."
By BRENDAN O'HALLARN
When he worked the Friday night shift, Jagroop Hayer would always make sure to kiss his kids goodnight.
"It was just in case I never saw them again," said Hayer, a Winnipeg taxi driver for 15 years.
Hayer and colleague Dalip Gill, who both work for Unicity Taxi, know their profession is a dangerous one. That point was driven home tragically last week with the vicious beating death of Pritam Deol, a taxi driver in Winnipeg for only four months.
But Gill, the self-professed king of North End taxi drivers ("I drive 99% of the time there. It's my office.") has no plans to abandon the profession.
'YOU GOTTA FEED THE KIDS'
"Life is risky being a cab driver, but what are you going to do? You've gotta feed the kids," Gill said.
Hayer and Gill both moved to Canada from India. They started driving taxis because there was little other work that would pay any more than minimum wage.
Many Punjabis drive taxis in Manitoba because they farmed in India and are used to hard work, Hayer said. Besides, with so many countrymen working as cabbies "you always have someone you can talk to," he said.
But five murders in the last 10 years, including three Punjabi drivers, have made everyone in the profession nervous.
Late last week, a driver was threatened by a fare who referred to Deol's murder, Gill said.
He said: "Don't you know what happened last night?" Gill told The Sun.
Hayer has been beaten twice. Once his cab was written off because of the attack and he had to pay the deductible to get it back on the road. Another time he lost some teeth, but the police said they couldn't charge anyone because there was no evidence an assault had taken place.
"The police in this city don't do nearly enough to protect us," Hayer said.
Deol's murder has renewed calls for mandatory shields to protect cab drivers.
Hayer and Gill both believe shields would make taxis safer but are adamant they won't stop many assaults from occurring.
"Will the shields stop someone from attacking you when you're outside the car? No. What happens when you get out of the car to knock on someone's door?" Gill said.
A delegation of Winnipeg cab drivers will meet today with Transportation Minister Steve Ashton to formally request mandatory shields in taxis.
Inderjit Singh Claire, general manager of Duffy’s Taxi, said cab drivers are prepared to take “serious action” if the province doesn’t move on the issue.
“I think the overwhelming majority of our members want the shields,” he said. “There is a threat to our drivers. Something happens every week to drivers, one way or the other.”
Claire said drivers would like the protective devices to be cost-shared with three levels of government, if possible.
Ashton met last night with the family of Pritam Deol, the cabbie who was murdered last Wednesday in' Winnipeg. He’s reserving comment on the issue until after he meets with drivers today.
Tory justice critic Darren Praznik thinks the province can avoid the cost of the shields by simply allowing the Taxicab Board to place a levy on taxi fares until the protective screens are paid for.
"The fact is, the need for these shields is the cost of driving a taxi in Winnipeg. It should be included in the fares,” he said.
More than half the city's taxis shut off their meters for four hours yesterday as cab drivers demanded better safety standards in the wake of last week's murder.
"We feel really nervous and shaken -- especially the night drivers," Mohinder Gundhu said as more than 200 cabs gathered at the Manitoba Legislative Building before driving through downtown Winnipeg in a sombre parade behind Pritam Deol's hearse.
The father of four was stabbed to death in the front of his cab last Wednesday. Three members of the Indian Posse gang are charged with second-degree murder.
Drivers with the city's two largest cab companies -- Duffy's and Unicity -- are demanding mandatory shields to protect drivers from back-seat passengers. They also want video cameras in taxis, emergency lights on top of cabs and faster police response times.
The drivers, who typically earn less than $18,000 a year and own their own cars, want the province and the city to help cover the $2,000 cost of installing safety shields.
"These people work very hard and they are looking for some kind of help," Duffy's general manager Inderjit Singh Claire said. "To save one life is more important than any political games."
Winnipeg's main cab companies shut down yesterday from 10 a.m. until about 2 p.m. for the rally, although taxis were still available at the airport.
They are threatening further service disruptions if the government does not act quickly.
Drivers said they will return to the Legislative Building today to meet politicians who were unavailable on the weekend.
But Tom Springman, owner of Spring Taxi, urged the crowd not to make hasty demands based on emotion. "Think it through very carefully."
Gundhu said smaller cab companies, which own their cabs rather than operating as co-operatives, are resisting the shields because of the expense.
But some drivers, such as Johan Allon, believe shields will do little to protect them. He said people who want to harm drivers will lure them out of their cabs.
Allon said drivers, especially recent immigrants, would benefit more from safety training. "People come here and after two months they're driving taxi," he said.
After his own close calls, Allon said he has learned to flee with his keys and phone instead of fighting with a customer who refuses to pay. The 11-year veteran is also very selective about who he picks up.
Allon said a shield would interfere with his ability to chat with passengers.
Other Canadian cities do not have shields in cabs, but Winnipeg's high murder rate justifies the extra measure here, Gundhu said.
He installed a shield himself in 1991, but had to take it out because he was losing passengers to cabs without the shields. If the shields were mandatory, such competition would not be an issue, he said.
Maples MLA Chris Aglugub delivered condolences yesterday on behalf of Premier Gary Doer. In an interview, Aglugub said he hopes Highways Minister Steve Ashton will consider mandatory shields if the taxi companies can come up with a good design.
"We cannot carry on with this kind of situation where drivers are killed trying to make a living."
The lack of an appropriate design was what stalled the initiative after the Manitoba Taxicab Board first decided to make the shields mandatory in 1990 following the last murder of a Winnipeg cabbie.
Kaur Sidhu, a former cab driver who sits on the taxicab board, said the agency will discuss safety options at a meeting this week, but no decision will be made on mandatory shields until the industry is consulted.
Sidhu was mugged twice himself and a fare once left a gun under his seat.
Aglugub said he cannot commit the province to helping pay for shields, but Unicity president Khalid Khan is optimistic because Ashton has previously indicated he would help pay for video cameras.
Gundhu said taxi drivers will have to arm themselves if the government does not act quickly. "Something should be done before we take something in our hands."
But Sidhu attributed the threat to anger and frustration, saying drivers know they cannot carry weapons.
The cold-blooded murder of taxi driver Pritam Deol struck a sombre chord for hundreds of cabbies who paid their respects yesterday to the family of the 52-year-old and father of four.
"It's very emotional," said friend and fellow taxi driver Naginder Aulakh. "It's such a tragic death."
A colourful patchwork of taxicabs bearing the logos of several different companies -- and many with thick, black ribbons tied to the antennas -- packed into the parking lot of Leatherdale Gardiner Funeral Chapel on Waverley Street.
More cabs still lined the routes around the cemetery and filled the lots of adjoining businesses.
Because so many people showed up to say goodbye to Deol, not everyone was able to make it inside for the funeral service. Most who waited outdoors chatted quietly with each other in foreign languages or cried alone on the cemetery grounds and under trees.
"It's just awful. It's such a shock," said Yvonne Bernard, who has worked for Duffy's Taxi for more than 10 years. Although she didn't know Deol personally, she said she felt compelled to show solidarity by attending the murder victim's funeral. "By the grace of God nothing violent has happened to me -- I just lock all my doors and pray a lot."
Deol was born in India in 1948 and started up his own business there before coming to Canada and settling in Winnipeg in 1997.
Deol's wife Daljit, son Gurpreet and daughters Manjinder, Ravinder and Gurminde moved into a home in West Kildonan, and Deol worked as an Initial Security guard before being hired by Unicity Taxi this spring. One of his daughters has since returned to India.
Before Deol's funeral service, a lengthy procession of taxis traveled slowly from the Legislature to the chapel. Afterward, police officers helped to direct traffic as another stretch of cabs wound their way back through the south end of the city and returned to the Legislative Building.
One man, who's good friends with the victim's brothers, said Deol simply did not deserve to lose his life in such a senseless manner.
"He was trying to make his living," he said, "and he was killed."
By FRANK NOLAN
Winnipeg cabbies will park their cars for two hours today unless the province agrees to their demands for safety shields and more police protection.
Duffy's Taxi board member Naginder Aulakh said representatives of the city's taxi drivers will meet with Labour Minister Becky Barrett this morning at 11 a.m. And if they aren't satisfied with Barrett's response to their calls for mandatory shields, Aulakh said cabbies will stop driving from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The move -- which follows the vicious murder Wednesday of cabbie Pritam Deol -- is supported by drivers such as Mohinder Gundh.
"When the NDP was in opposition they supported this. Now they are in a position to do something about it," the owner/operator said.
The taxicab board made shields mandatory in 1990, but the regulation was never enforced. Many drivers refused to install them, saying they were bad for business.
"I installed a shield in 1990, but my driver said he was losing money so I took it out after nine months," Gundh said.
Customers preferred to ride in cabs without shields, which discriminated against drivers who installed them, he said.
"If only some cabs have them, it's not going to work," Gundh said.
Cabbies are prepared to foot the bill for shield installation, but they will ask the government for help.
Calls made by The Sun to Barrett, Transportation Minister Steve Ashton and Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh were not returned yesterday.
"Our drivers aren't protected here," said Khalid Khan, president of Unicity Taxi.
"The justice system isn't doing enough. We want the system to get tougher with criminals, and we are banding together to demand mandatory shields," he said.
Khan said a good bulletproof shield costs about $2,000.
"It would cost about $800,000 to equip all the cabs in town," Khan said.
About 120 taxis converged on the Manitoba Legisla-ture yesterday mor-ning for a rally to demand mandatory safety shields in all Winnipeg cabs.
The demonstration preceded yesterday's funeral for 52-year-old cabbie Deol, who was stabbed to death last week. Ferlin Sum-ner, 19, Clayton Sumner, 22, and Darren Marsden, 18, are in police custody charged with second degree murder.
"The goal (of the rally) is to make people aware of the dangers of driving a taxi in this city. We want to see all taxis equipped with shields," said Duffy's general manager Inderjit Singh Claire.
Spring Taxi owner Tom Springman said cabbie safety is a complex issue.
Springman wants the Winnipeg taxi industry to come up with detailed recommendations to ensure that no more taxi drivers are killed.
"We need to sit down as an industry to decide what we want to do. If we work together for a solution, perhaps this thing will never happen again," Springman said.
In the meantime, Duffy's driver Shamsher Singh said cabbies will continue to fear for their lives.
"You're always afraid. You have to be really careful," Singh said.
In addition to the immediate demands for shields and increased police protection, the cabbies also eventually want video cameras in taxis and outside emergency lights.
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