Drug dealers, drunks and bodies lying on the road are all in a day’s work for Tom Tompkins.
And the first thing out of the Premier Cab driver’s mouth on Thursday afternoon is, “I’m nuts.”
It’s an introduction that proves true in less than a minute.
By the time Tompkins had driven two blocks, he’s fielded three calls, radioed several different drivers, almost run over a pedestrian on Second Avenue and is busy trying to write something down on a notepad as he turns onto Main Street.
And this is just the beginning.
There are 12 cab companies in Whitehorse and none of them have 24-hour dispatch.
That means each cab company has drivers fielding calls and on Thursday afternoon, for Premier, it was Tompkins’ turn.
“One of the biggest problems is risk to customers,” said Premier’s owner Ken Giam, citing an especially memorable trip to Lobird.
“I was dispatching and you’re so busy, you have to keep track of the rotation, and you need something to write on, and sometimes you have to remember trips and write down trips …,” he said.
“Sometimes you’re so engrossed you don’t even know you’re in an unsafe situation.”
When he dropped off his customers, the couple was livid.
“They said, ‘You put my life at risk,’ said Giam.
“And I did.”
Whitehorse cabbies are regularly getting into accidents because they’re on the phone and the radio while trying to write down trips.
And it’s the city’s fault, he said.
In the city’s taxi bylaw, there’s a section that requires all cab companies to have “two-way radio communication with a base station and dispatcher.”
But some Whitehorse cabs don’t even have a radio, let alone a base station, and rely solely on cellphones to field calls and dispatch drivers.
“Most of them are using cellphones,” admitted city bylaw manager John Taylor.
“It’s dangerous, but it’s the same as everyone driving around texting.”
Whitehorse doesn’t enforce its taxi bylaw, he added.
Two years ago, a taxi company won a legal case against the city that undermined the bylaw’s dispatch requirements.
“What we’ve come down to is the courts have ruled our dispatch thing is invalid,” said Taylor.
On the way down the Alaska Highway, heading to Kopper King trailer park for a pickup, Tompkins was talking on one cellphone, dialing out on another and trying to read his notepad to see which driver was next in line.
In the rare moments when it’s not ringing, he keeps the main cellphone – attached to the dash by a wire – tucked in his breast pocket. The radio, which hangs over the ashtray, continually falls onto the floor mat while the notepad slides around in front of the windshield.
As he pulled into the trailer park it looked like there was a lumpy black garbage bag tossed on the road.
But as the cab got closer, it became clear it was a person.
As Tom Tompkins drove around the sleeping figure curled up on the snowy street, he mistook them for one of his more violent customers. Then, realizing it was a woman, he got out to see if she’d called the cab.
And she’s comfortable, he said, climbing back into the cab.
Radioing in that the call to the Kopper King had been “a dud,” Tompkins slowly pulled away with the cellphone ringing and the radio crackling to life.
Whitehorse has an absurd number of cab companies for its size, a phenomena Quality Cabs owner Robert Simard links to the city’s lax bylaws.
“The problem is bylaw relaxed some of its rules, which made it very easy to open a taxi company,” he said, citing the dispatch issue.
“You used to need a dispatch office, and there were a lot more hoops to go through,” said Simard.
Now, there are companies that only have one car operated by the owner using a cellphone.
If the city enforced its bylaw, most of these companies would go under because they couldn’t afford to staff a dispatch office, said Giam.
“But the city wants more companies, because more competition means more service and they fail to realize so many problems have been created – one of the biggest problems is risk to customers.”
Without a dispatch, there’s no oversight – no one knows whom the driver picked up, where they’re going or how long they’ve been gone.
And the Whitehorse taxi industry has its share of shady characters.
“There’s a lot of things that are happening in the cab business that definitely paint a bad picture,” said Grizzly Bear Taxi owner Don Francoeur, who gets two to three calls a week from customers looking for crack, pot or booze.
“We have nothing to do with it,” he said.
“But in the last year it’s been getting worse.”
Some Whitehorse cab drivers are dealers, while others just drive the dealers around.
When Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods legislation came into effect in the Yukon four years ago, more dealers started using cabs instead of risking eviction, said Tompkins.
Hired for an hour at time, Tompkins found himself driving around dealers, making deliveries. “On the trip sheet you don’t write down where you picked them up, or where you dropped them off,” he said.
But it got to him after a while, and Tompkins quit taking these gigs.
“I don’t know which is worse,” he said. “Dealing drugs or taking tip money to keep your mouth shut.”
Tompkins has been in the business for 10 years, and it’s getting worse, he said.
In Yellowknife, a city roughly the size of Whitehorse, there are only two cab companies, and a company can’t start up with any less than 10 cars.
There’s also zero tolerance for criminal offences on the job.
“We strengthened our bylaw,” said Yellowknife city manager Doug Gillard.
“If you’re convicted of any criminal offence while on duty as taxi driver, you’re done for life,” he said.
Also in Yellowknife, drivers who’ve been convicted of sexual offences, trafficking, assault, kidnapping or robbery will not be issued a taxi permit.
In Whitehorse, it’s a different story.
As long as drivers have been clean for five years they’ll get a permit, even if there are past convictions, including sexual offences, trafficking, assault, kidnapping or robbery.
Mohammed Abdullahi, a Whitehorse cabbie who was found guilty last week of exposing himself to a young woman in his taxi, making her touch his penis, is a perfect example.
Already under a court order prohibiting him from carrying lone female passengers, Abdullahi won’t be allowed to operate a cab in Whitehorse for five years.
In Yellowknife, he’d never drive a cab again.
“To paint the industry because of one situation is wrong,” said Taylor, mentioning the Abdullahi case.
But bylaw does see a number of complaints about cabbies.
“Peddling? That happens,” said Taylor.
“The concerns are right across the industry, that I’m hearing, they’re not directed at one company.
“And that information is taken and passed on to the appropriate authorities.”
Having designated dispatch offices wouldn’t make much of a difference, he added.
“So is everyone going to be honest if there’s a dispatch?” he said. “They’re not going to be peddling?
“Who knows what’s being done in those vehicles.”
Even if cab companies did have dispatch offices, who’d police them? he said.
Taylor’s department is in the process of rewriting the taxi bylaw, but he would not elaborate on possible changes.
“Everything is a concern to me,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have rewritten it if I was happy with the current bylaw.”
Taylor, when asked, said he’d be comfortable sending his wife off in a local cab.
But Tompkins wouldn’t.
At the end of the trip, the experienced cabbie admitted there were only three drivers in town he’d let his wife ride with – and he was one of them.
The Mohamed mix-up
When Golden Taxi owner Mohamed Abdullahi was charged with sexual assault last week, United Taxi owner Mohamed Osman’s business dropped dramatically.
“People keep saying, ‘Oh Mohamed, aren’t you in jail?’” said Osman. “It’s terrible.”
There are four cabbies in town named Mohamed, but three use nicknames.
“I am the only one that uses Mohamed,” said Osman.
The Mohamed who was charged went by Lungo, he said. Another calls himself Moses.
For Osman, the mix-up is disastrous.
“Lots of the community thinks it was me,” he said.
“I have kids in school here, and I don’t want them to hear something like that.”
Osman is from Ethiopia, and has been driving cab in Whitehorse since 2005.
The other three Mohameds are from Somalia.
“Somalia and Ethiopia don’t really get along,” he said.
“And here, I don’t really talk to them.”
Osman’s company, which has five cars, used to get about 140 calls a day.
Now he’s lucky to get 30.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org