City wants cabbies off the phone

The city wants to crack down on cabbies who use cellphones while driving. This despite the fact the territorial government hasn't banned cellphone use for other Yukon drivers.

The city wants to crack down on cabbies who use cellphones while driving.

This despite the fact the territorial government hasn’t banned cellphone use for other Yukon drivers.

The move is intended to stop taxi drivers from dispatching calls while driving, said bylaw manager John Taylor.

But the idea, which cabbies agree will make their jobs safer, is also misguided.

Driving a cab with a cellphone stuck to your ear can be the same as driving drunk, said Premier Cabs owner Ken Giam.

He would know – his drivers have been in two serious accidents because of it.

But the danger isn’t really cellphones, it’s drivers trying to do too many things at once, he said.

Drivers often double as dispatchers: answering incoming calls, talking on a two-way radio, remembering where other drivers in the city are, scribbling down addresses – all while negotiating traffic.

The solution is simple, said Giam. Require companies to hire a separate, full-time dispatcher.

That rule’s in the existing bylaw, but isn’t actively enforced.

Stopping dispatcher/drivers is a good idea, but useless if bylaw officers don’t apply the legislation.

“Bylaw services are understaffed and they have a serious, systemic issue of not enforcing their own bylaws,” said Giam.

Bylaw enforcement is spotty, said Grizzly Bear Taxi owner Don Francoeur.

“Bylaw doesn’t do much to enforce their bylaws, to be honest,” he said. “You still see quite a few drivers with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths even though it has been three years since the city put in their (anti-smoking in taxis) bylaw.”

It would be unfair to ban cellphones in cabs if other drivers can use them, said Francoeur and Giam.

But bylaw officers couldn’t distinguish between personal and business calls, said Taylor.

Monday, Taylor presented council with a draft of the city’s updated vehicle-for-hire bylaw.

In addition to the cellphone ban, it lays out several other new rules for taxi companies.

The number of cabs on the road will be limited, liability insurance will increase to $3 million and company vehicles must be no older than five model years.

As well, cabbies can’t play their car stereo without passenger permission.

And the city wants to bar cabbies from eating or drinking while ferrying a passenger.

If caught, either offence could net a $50 fine.

“You have to be able to drink water while you’re working; that idea is bull,” said Francoeur.

However, some changes are welcomed by the industry, especially limiting the number of vehicles on the road, which will curb the expansion of the city’s cab industry.

“Right now, you go outside of Extra Foods at night and you see 11, maybe 12 cabs sitting outside with no one in them,” said Giam.

“There’s no reason for a city our size to have 12 different cab companies.”

On Christmas Day, Giam had some drivers who made as little as $25 because there were so many other cabs on the road.

Requiring an around-the-clock dispatcher and $3-million liability insurance will also cut the number of cab companies in Whitehorse.

“There’s no way that a company with one driver would pay for a 24-hour dispatcher,” said Francoeur.

Smaller businesses will either have to merge or die off.

The industry also welcomes restrictions on who can drive.

Currently, if a person had a serious criminal charge, such as sexual assault or robbery, they couldn’t drive if they had served their sentence within the past five years.

The city wants to change that to 15 years.

But the city is still doling out temporary licences to taxi drivers before fingerprint scans have returned from the RCMP.

That means a driver with a serious conviction could drive cab for 90 days with a temporary licence.

That concerned councillor Dave Stockdale at Monday’s council meeting.

“If anything happens in that situation, are we liable?” said Stockdale.

Taylor couldn’t verify with 100 per cent certainty that the city would in fact be covered.

However, he said that he and his senior bylaw officer could tell by meeting with the applicant if they were qualified.

“We pretty well have to use a gut instinct of, ‘Are they telling us the truth or not?” he said.

“We cross our fingers, hoping. We’ve been very fortunate so far.”

Most people are open about their past and if they carry a record, it’s usually because of a marijuana charge or an impaired driving conviction from 20 years ago, he added.

But drivers who are charged with a crime won’t necessarily be ordered off the road until they’ve been convicted of that crime.

That’s what happened when Mohammed Abdullahi, a Whitehorse cabbie, was charged with sexual assault in the summer.

He could continue driving cab, even though cities like Ottawa would have immediately ordered the driver off the road.

Five months after the charge, Abdullahi was found guilty of exposing himself to a young woman in his taxi and making her touch his penis.

The city’s draft vehicle-for-hire bylaw is available for public input until March 15th.

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com

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