Thursday, 9 May 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
A taxi driver was attacked and suffered serious head and facial injuries in Dublin last Monday night. He was attacked at 12.30 a.m. at Rutland Grove in Crumlin. The passengers took the driver's mobile telephone, a sum of cash and a dashboard camera. According to reports, as he lay injured, the gang members attempted to steal the taxi but failed to start it. They fled the scene on foot and four people were arrested following the attack. This was not a once-off occurrence but part of a spate of attacks on taxi drivers in recent weeks. More must be done to protect taxi drivers.
The latest attack on a taxi driver in Dublin comes just weeks after a video of a racist and violent attack on a taxi driver was shared online. That incident happened at 10 p.m. on Easter Sunday on the Malahide Road in Donnycarney in north Dublin and a man has handed himself into a north Dublin Garda station with regard to the attack. The Immigrant Council of Ireland has interviewed taxi drivers from various ethnic backgrounds and its report on the racist attacks noted that many of them happened while the taxi was in motion, putting the driver and passengers at risk. The number of physical attacks is also increasing. A 73 year old Dublin taxi driver was beaten up and pulled out of his car in Tallaght recently. He was stabbed and his car was later burnt out. Many other attacks go unreported.
Taxi drivers are increasingly frightened of going out to work. Many of them say they will not drive into certain estates in Dublin. I heard that at first hand from taxi drivers. They are being attacked and held at knifepoint. Their equipment is being stolen and there are attempts to rob them. Some taxi drivers have put a camera in the cab. Perhaps the Minister for Justice and Equality could examine ways of supporting the drivers. It is their place of work. I spoke to a taxi driver who told me that on two occasions he has had a syringe put to his throat. He ended up packing in the job, saying that it was not worth his life. That has an impact on his family.
No person should have to work in such a dangerous environment. The recent spate of attacks and violent robberies has led taxi drivers to avoid certain estates, and the ordinary, decent people who are living in these estates will suffer. There are reports of some gangs targeting taxi drivers through apps and based on their age and physical fitness levels. There must be a strong response from An Garda Síochána and the Government before there is a fatality.
Is the Minister aware of the problem? What response will there be to the attacks? Has the Minister spoken to An Garda Síochána about it? Is there a plan to deal with it? It is not just taxi drivers who are affected. There has also been a spate of attacks on drivers of delivery vans. The attackers target people who are vulnerable. Has the Minister talked to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport about this? Has he looked at how other jurisdictions safeguard taxi or cab drivers? There are different facilities in New York. There is a sign at the back of the taxi cab facing the passenger that states the fare and also that it is an offence not to pay the fare or to attack the driver and that the courts will follow through on it. I am seeking suggestions of what new things we can do in this regard. I realise that the Minister was dealing with another issue under the earlier Topical Issue matter and that it is all about resources. However, we must send a strong message to taxi drivers that we are listening to their concerns and we will respond.
I acknowledge the importance of this issue and thank Deputy Crowe for raising it. First, I acknowledge that taxi drivers can work in an environment that puts them at a higher risk of being attacked during the course of their work. There is no doubt that we should do as much as possible to protect them. Taxi drivers have highlighted the potential dangers of the job. They work alone, often at night and in isolated areas. They carry cash and, for the most part, they do not know their customers. Obviously, thousands of taxi journeys are taken each day and the vast majority conclude without incident, but occasionally taxi drivers will find themselves in unpleasant or even dangerous situations.
All taxi drivers, as part of their initial training and preparation for examinations, are provided with the Official Manual for Operating within the SPSV Industry. This manual is produced by the National Transport Authority in consultation with the Garda crime prevention unit and contains a chapter entitled Staying Safe. The chapter offers a range of information and suggestions on how to deal with difficult customers or dangerous situations that I encourage taxi drivers to be aware of and, where possible, put into action. This includes suggestions on taking extra care in isolated areas, making eye contact with the customer when the customer gets into the car, and arranging a code word with the dispatch operator or a colleague that can be used in communication with them if danger is perceived.
Information regarding ways to reduce the risk of robbery is also provided. An Garda Síochána has recommended that taxi drivers: avoid carrying large sums of cash where possible; do not show or tell customers how much cash they have and be discrete with their cash when giving a customer change; do not display valuables; and lock their vehicles while in isolated areas or waiting for a customer to arrive.
An Garda Síochána also advises that taxi drivers who have been the victims of robbery or fare evasion should not chase the perpetrators because this might put their personal safety at further risk. In addition, it is advised that taxi drivers should not take any action that might be deemed to be illegal or, again, put themselves at risk, such as detaining a passenger by force. The advice from An Garda Síochána to taxi drivers is to make contact immediately on 999 or 112 if they have been the victim of an assault, robbery or fare evasion and, if safe to do so, remain at that location until gardaí.
I am advised that An Garda Síochána is conducting full investigations into each recent case involving assaults on and robberies from taxi drivers. In such circumstances, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further while these investigations are ongoing. I acknowledge what Deputy Crowe stated. He has put forward a number of important suggestions. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is beside me - he is here to deal with another issue - and I would be very happy to take on board his observations and submissions on this issue. It is important that we unite in this House and work with An Garda Síochána to ensure that taxi drivers and those engaged in that business are fully protected by the law.
The cost of insurance for taxi drivers has trebled in the past year. As well as the insurance issue, the situation is becoming much more dangerous for taxi drivers. Many people who do not have access to transport are reliant on the services of taxi drivers. I include in this those seeking to get to work. Taxis are not just used for social occasions, they are also used for vital purposes such as, for example, if a child is sick and has to go to hospital. It is important that we put in place the necessary supports for taxi drivers and that we stop these attacks.
I would like to hear from both of the Ministers that they will talk to each other to see if there are ways in which we can help the drivers. Will they also meet the drivers and their representatives to discuss the dangers they face and perhaps listen to their suggestions on what can be done? We have heard of apps which increase the safety of drivers and passengers. We have to examine those apps and the information they contain because they might also be a reason that people are targeted. The most important thing is to look at other jurisdictions. We are not alone; drivers and cab companies in other countries are also experiencing difficulties. We can learn from their experience. I am not proposing that we learn from jurisdictions where drivers are blocked off from passengers, but perhaps we could look at that as part of an overall safety review. Drivers should have the option to block off passengers, but that cannot be done at the moment. I appeal to both Ministers to sit down with the drivers and talk to them.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, and I speak on an almost daily basis in respect of this and other issues of importance. I want to make it quite clear that the type of criminal behaviour to which Deputy Crowe refers has no place in society and will not be tolerated. An Garda Síochána is very much alive to this issue, but that does not alter the difficulties it is encountering in trying to effectively tackle this form of crime. Taxi drivers operate in isolated areas or at night. They work alone and often carry cash in their vehicles. In that context, there is a certain amount of personal responsibility on taxi drivers to keep themselves safe. It has been suggested that drivers should consider the purchase of dash cams or CCTV systems to monitor the interior and exterior of their vehicles. A number of drivers already use such equipment. The footage from a CCTV system in the interior of the vehicle can help to identify any attackers. If the quality of footage is sufficiently high, it may be used as evidence in a court of law.
As the Deputy may be aware, the National Transport Authority is launching a new taxi driver respect campaign this month. This is a public awareness drive which advocates respect for taxi drivers. The campaign illustrates that taxi drivers can be anybody, including a friend or a family member. As such, they deserve our full respect. The campaign will include print media and bus shelters, as well as information disseminated via other media outlets. I hope this campaign, aligned with the Government's commitment to increase Garda numbers and visibility, will lead to a reduction in the number of assaults and robberies involving taxi drivers in the near future.