Toronto Star

Hamilton cabbies forced into ‘refresher’ class

Drivers must pony up $125 as city preps for Pan Am Games


Hamilton will force all 1,200 taxi drivers in the city to pay for retraining this year ahead of the Pan Am Games whether they have bad driving records or not.

The mandatory $125 “refresher” class will focus on defensive driving, but also includes a Pan Am primer to help cabbies “present the City of Hamilton in a world class way” during a series of soccer games hosted in July, according to the course descriptio­n.

Cabbies will now be required to do a different refresher course each year through the Taxi Academy, a private training agency contracted by the city.

The mandatory training will “punish” taxi drivers with clean driving records, said Ontario Taxi Workers Union president Mahmud Ali Naim- poor, who argued spiking insurance rates are already pushing some drivers out of the business.

“We’re going to talk to (the city) about it. If you want to make it mandatory for drivers with a bad record, that’s fine. Otherwise, it’s a money grab,” he said, adding drivers resent the lost hours on the job as much as the course fee.

“Insurance has doubled, more than doubled, for some people. This is not helping us.”

Until now, the city has typically only required paid training for new cabbies and those driving accessible cabs subject to new provincial legislatio­n.

The refresher course is timely given the impending arrival of tens of thousands of Pan Am soccer fans in July, not to mention expected road closures and other traffic snarls, said manager of licensing and permits Al Fletcher.

But he added the new training requiremen­t was spurred by a mix of resident complaints, bylaw and Highway Traffic Act infraction­s, not simply a one-off sporting event.

“We know we have a lot of very good taxi drivers out there,” Fletcher said. “Unfortunat­ely, there are bad apples and they end up affecting how the whole industry is perceived.”

Fletcher said around 300 residents complain to the city each year about taxis, with perceived bad driving accounting for about a third of the complaints in 2013. Those numbers don’t include complaints made directly to the city’s two large cab companies.

Fletcher didn’t have complaints statistics from other years available in a recent interview, or the number of Highway Traffic Act infraction­s that show up on annual reviews of driver abstracts. But Fletcher said those poor driving records prompt the city to yank about six taxi licences a year. The city has simultaneo­usly cracked down on taxi bylaw violations, laying 147 provincial offences charges since 2013 covering things such as unsafe vehicles and smoking in a cab.

Fletcher acknowledg­ed drivers will balk at the cost of the annual course, but he noted other cities such as Markham already insist on yearly refresher courses for taxi drivers. He said the hope is better training will cut the number of accidents — and eventually, insurance costs.

Taxi drivers in Toronto are required to take refresher training every four years, the cost of which is included in their annual licence renewal fee, says City of Toronto spokesman Bruce Hawkins. He said he doesn’t foresee any additional training being required ahead of the Pan Am Games.

Some drivers have begun venting about the impending training online.

Hans Wienhold, a driver who ran in the last provincial election for the Libertaria­n Party, has blogged and emailed local politician­s about the issue.

He questioned the value of the original $400 course cabbies were forced to take several years ago, which he said included “stuff that is totally irrelevant to the Hamilton taxi industry but made some bureaucrat feel good and made lots of $$$ for the taxi school.

“Now we are being told that we must continue paying for the same type of crud or else our means to a livelihood will be revoked,” he wrote.

Councillor Sam Merulla said he has heard from taxi drivers about the course. But he argued extra training is in the best interest of drivers and the city alike — especially with the prospect of competitio­n looming from contentiou­s ridesharin­g behemoth Uber.

That company is now connecting riders to drivers via smartphone in hundreds of cities around the world despite concerns the service sidesteps municipal safety regulation­s.

“If we’re going to support the (existing) industry, it will be because it’s demonstrab­ly safer for the public,” Merulla said. With files from Betsy Powell

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