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Legislation needed to curb criminal cabbies

About a month ago, Jim was standing outside the Salvation Army having a cigarette when he saw a taxi pull up.

About a month ago, Jim was standing outside the Salvation Army having a cigarette when he saw a taxi pull up.

“The cabbie called over to this young girl, ‘I’ll take you somewhere for a blowjob,’” said Jim (who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons).

She got in.

“It looked like she was in her early 20s,” he said.

Jim drove taxi in Whitehorse from 1975 to 1986, with “just about every company that was open at the time.”

Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, he said.

When Jim was driving, there was no animosity between the companies.

“If a driver was in trouble, it didn’t matter which company he was with — five other cabbies would show up to help.”

Now, drivers from different companies don’t even talk to each other, he said.

The companies used to be accountable, said Jim.

“The dispatcher was boss and if dispatch got a complaint or was suspicious of a driver, they could call that driver in and pull him off shift or have him fired.”

That doesn’t happen anymore, said Jim.

That’s because there have been systemic changes in the city’s taxi service.

When Jim was driving, the company owned the cars.

The driver got 40 per cent of the fares and the company, who paid the oil, gas and insurance, got the other 60 per cent.

The drivers took home their share of the fare every day.

“Some days you went home with $10 and some days you went home with $100,” said Jim.

Then the Yukon government changed the rules.

If drivers made less than minimum wage on any given day, the company had to subsidize them.

To get around that, companies started averaging driver wages over 30 days.

That’s when the business began changing, said Jim.

Companies started subcontracting cars to drivers.

Now, the drivers own most taxicabs in town.

“If a driver wants to put a car on with a company, they make an agreement on how much that driver will pay the dispatch,” said Jim.

“Before, if there were complaints, you could get rid of the driver and take over the shift — but now you can’t, because the driver owns the car.

“And if the company is making $300 a week in dispatch fees (from that car and driver), it won’t want to pull them from its fleet.”

Yellow Cab, Fifth Avenue Taxi and Whitehorse Taxi are all run out of one central dispatch office.

This also makes drivers less accountable, said Jim.

The Yukon’s labour services branch used to insist each company have its own dispatch, he said.

“The dispatcher knew where each car was and would call a driver if they noticed a taxi was parked in an alley for 20 minutes” for no apparent reason.

But with drivers as subcontractors, dispatch is no longer the boss, said Jim.

The dispatch offices used to be downtown.

“People who had a complaint used to be able to walk into the office and talk to someone,” he said.

Now, central dispatch is based on the Alaska Highway, just south of town.

“There has been a lot of illicit activity done by certain taxi drivers with their vehicles,” said NDP leader Todd Hardy on Thursday.

“I see it in the downtown core.

“One of the big problems, when we were fighting to bring in SCAN (Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods legislation), was the amount of calls I would get from some of the residents saying another cab has just pulled up and stopped at the infamous (drug) house.

“And the people getting out of the cabs are 12 or 13 and they’re going in there and coming out with drugs and there’s prostitution — that was a regular complaint.

“So maybe SCAN should be looking at cabs, not just houses.”

With all the issues surrounding taxi companies right now, a lot of people don’t want to call a cab, he said.

Years ago, Hardy’s dad drove taxi for a winter.

 “It was a very different operation back then,” said Hardy.

“The main business was responsible — they supplied the vehicle and he drove for them.

“It was a lot cleaner.”

The city’s bylaw services currently permits taxi drivers and licenses the vehicles, while the territory’s motor vehicles branch issues the green licence plates.

But this is changing, said bylaw manager John Taylor on Thursday.

A bill being introduced in the legislature to repeal the Motor Transport Act will probably give the city this responsibility as well.

“It’s being taken over by the city,” said transport services director Vern Janz on Thursday.

Before drivers are permitted, they have to undergo a criminal records check, said Taylor.

And the vehicles aren’t licensed until they undergo mechanicals. Every six months cabs are inspected and the meters are checked for tampering, he said.

Taylor has also heard complaints about illicit activity surrounding some cabbies.

“If we get a tip, we phone the RCMP,” he said. “And if a driver is charged we pull their permit.”

The trouble is, it’s hard to get witnesses to come forward.

A couple of weeks ago, Taylor got a call — a cabbie was making lewd comments to a young woman.

The caller gave Taylor the cab number, but didn’t know the young woman’s name.

“So all we can do is tell the driver to clean up his act,” said Taylor.

“We don’t know who the young lady is, and no one is willing to come forward.”

This kind of thing happens all the time. “And if there are no witnesses, then it’s just innuendo,” he said.

The cab drivers are taking advantage of young girls and guys, people who don’t have a home, those who have fetal alcohol syndrome or who are hopelessly hooked on crack, said Jim.

“And these are the same people who are being oppressed by the RCMP — so who do they complain to?” he said.

“They say nothing until something really bad happens.”

With taxi companies subcontracting drivers, if cabbies do get involved in illicit activities and get caught, it would relieve the responsibility of the overall dispatch company, said Hardy.

“We’ve got the worst taxis in Canada,” he said.

“And maybe what we need is a serious look at the standards regarding cab companies.

“I never thought we had the jurisdiction to do it, and maybe we do.”