How safe are Dublin taximen?
Since deregulation almost anyone can drive a taxi in Dublin. Do we need vetting procedures like they have in other countries? EDDIE LENNON reports
How safe is it to take a taxi in Dublin these days? Far more dangerous than you might think. Far more dangerous than you might like to assume, given the relationship of trust most of us take for granted when we get into a cab.
While most of us are happier with the improved taxi service in Dublin since deregulation came about three years ago, opening up the taxi business has created its own problems. For some observers, the very foundation upon which public service is based - that of trust - has been significantly eroded since deregulation.
Disreputable and sometimes dangerous individuals, many of them convicted criminals, have been given taxi licences thanks to the new regime. And serious attacks by taxi drivers on passengers have increased dramatically, according to National Taxi Drivers' Union vice-president, Vinnie Kearns.
"I'm aware of allegations of up to a dozen rapes and sexual assaults," he says, and adds that a number of taxi drivers have been convicted of drug trafficking and that he knows of two drivers found dead in their cars from drug overdoses.
Last year a survey by Lansdowne Market Research found that only one-in-four people felt "very safe" in a taxi. Vinnie Kearns says this lack of public confidence is not surprising in view of several violent assaults by taxi drivers.
One lady who travelled in a taxi in Malahide alleged she was raped by the driver. In another incident, a passenger was beaten up by a taxi driver in Drimnagh.
Vinnie Kearns says: "One of our lads was driving through the Phoenix Park and thought he saw the shape of a person in the trees. He drove back and found a girl who was in floods of tears. He put her into the car. She had got a taxi at O'Connell Street bridge, going to Dunboyne, and when the taxi driver was driving her through the Park he attempted to take her clothes off. The girl fought him off, he beat her up and threw her out in the middle of the Park. I checked out the incident, and it was confirmed by the Garda Carriage Office. We have hard evidence of these and other incidents that have happened since deregulation."
Kearns blames the new rash of criminal offences by taxi men on deregulation and the Government's failure to introduce a proper system of vetting those who apply for a taxi licence. The number of taxis on the streets has more than trebled to over 10,000 since time was called on the cosy cabbies' club by former minister for Transport Bobby Molloy.
Dublin TD Roisin Shortall is the Labour Party's spokesperson on transport, and sits on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport. She says she is "extremely concerned" for the safety of taxi passengers in Dublin, particularly women passengers.
"It's so easy to get into the taxi business now. Before deregulation, there was a fair degree of assurance that if taxi drivers had forked out up to ?100,000 for a taxi licence, they were highly unlikely to jeopardise their investment by carrying out any kind of assault. The very fact that the industry was so difficult to get into was a kind of guarantee of safety to passengers.
'A survey by Lansdowne
Market Research found that only one-in-four
people felt "very safe" in a taxi.'
"Because of the explosion in the number of taxis, the Gardai have lost track of the people involved; prior to deregulation, they would have been pretty familiar with most taxi drivers in Dublin. But you can get into the business so cheaply now that there's a danger that any kind of person can become a taxi driver, and there's no assurance that people can be safe travelling in a taxi. The amount of incidents since deregulation has borne that out."
When the Fianna Fáil/PD administration opened up the taxi market three years ago, amid a fanfare of competition and choice, it appears to have given little thought to the safety of Dublin taxi passengers and the need to keep dangerous people out of the taxi business. While the world of Dublin taxi drivers has changed considerably since deregulation, the procedure for vetting those applying for taxi licences hasn't changed at all - and it leaves an awful lot to be desired.
This was starkly illustrated five years ago when the man convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl in the notorious 'X' case had his taxi licence withdrawn after allegations that he had indecently assaulted a 14-year-old girl while working as a taxi driver. How did a convicted rapist get the licence in the first place? Gardai said there were several reasons why the rapist "slipped through the net" and was given a licence.
He had changed address since the 'X' case and was not well known to local Gardai. There may also have been a 'human error' at the Gardai central computer facility, the Gardai told this reporter at the time. They also said he made no mention in his application form about his criminal record. Prompted by his obtaining a licence without their knowledge, Gardai since brought in a new rule: everyone who applies for a licence must declare all previous convictions.
But this has done little or nothing to stop disreputable and sometimes dangerous people from driving a taxi. To get a taxi licence, you apply to the Gardai who carry out a full criminal record check. Then they send your application to the relevant Garda Superintendent, who approves or refuses the licence.
Often the problem for the Gardai has been that when they refuse a licence to someone with a criminal record, the person takes the case to court and the judge overturns the Garda decision, usually on the basis that the applicant has already paid his debt to society and should be entitled to earn a living.
The flaw in this scheme of thinking is all too obvious: how can you predict how someone with a previous pattern of criminal behaviour is likely to behave in the future? Fianna Fáil TD Eoin Ryan also sits on the Oireachtas Joint Committee. He says: "It has proven very difficult for the Gardai in the courts. The garda has to prove the person applying for the taxi licence is not suitable to drive a cab. That can be very difficult, and is a problem that needs to be addressed."
He adds: "The vetting system doesn't seem to be working. It's one of the things the new taxi body will have to address. People who shouldn't be getting licences are getting them. The vast majority of taxi drivers are perfectly fine people. But there's a small percentage who are not, and we need to have procedures in place to make sure the wrong people don't get through the net. People are properly vetted in other countries; there's no reason why it can't be done here."
Vinnie Kearns says when cities such as Stockholm deregulated, they introduced the necessary safeguards to protect the public from the possibility of violence by taxi drivers.
"There's a problem with the whole way deregulation happened," says Roisin Shortall. "Overnight, the taxi business became a free-for-all, and it's only now that the Government is seeking to put in place some kind of regulator (to oversee the taxi business). That should have happened before the market was opened up. There was no consideration given to the issue of safety.
"Prior to deregulation, parents felt happy that if their kids were in town at the weekend and coming home in a taxi, they were safe. That isn't the case any more. People in a vulnerable situation, on their own and late at night, put their trust in taxi drivers. Before the market was opened up, a proper system of regulation should have been put in place, in respect of standards for both vehicles and drivers, to protect those passengers. We are now paying the price for the lack of regard the Government had for people's safety."
We asked the Garda Press Office for figures on the level and nature of complaints against taxi drivers over the past three years, and the amount and nature of any criminal convictions.
We also asked whether the Gardai are concerned about the reported increases in sexual attacks by Dublin taxi drivers, and whether the system of vetting taxi drivers is sufficient. They were unavailable for comment.