The mass murderer who drove around shooting people (as far as we know at random) in Kalamazoo, Michigan was an Uber driver.
According to reports, a passenger was taken for a terrifying ride not long before this senseless shooting spree started. It was reported to Uber and the local police.
Now, understandably, people are writing articles about Uber’s flawed rating system, wondering aloud if it screens people properly and speculation has begun about whether there were any indications of what was about to happen in the days preceding.
I had a different thought — would it have made a difference if he had been a taxi driver?
The tragic events in Kalamazoo caused me to rethink my stance on Uber – and probably not in the way you would imagine.
Up until a few weeks ago I was firmly in the anti-Uber camp but now, thanks to a taxi driver and various levels of government, I find myself reconsidering my position at exactly the same moment some of the pro-Uber camp is reconsidering theirs.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two camps apart.
When I first heard about Uber and the enthusiasm some people had for jumping in cars with complete strangers unhindered by government regulation and licensing, I thought, ‘Who are these dear naive souls whose faith in humanity is so blissfully untouched by the awfulness of the world?’
Also have they not noticed the significant percentage of really bad drivers out there?
Personally I love government regulation. I believe in it – support it – applaud it. I want more of it!
Government regulation is the only line of defence between me and consuming a mouthful of jarred rat droppings labeled as caviar – (albeit a line too easily penetrable – but, at least a still somewhat theoretically and occasionally plausibly, accountable defence).
I once wrote a fluff piece for a business magazine about a local billionaire who, annoyed at waiting for a delayed flight, and with no previous relevant experience, decided to start his own (now defunct) airline. One of the execs I interviewed grabbed a huge binder off a shelf full of huge binders and said ‘this is just for in-flight food service.’
I had the urge to hug that binder.
I want rules on top of rules – and I want penalties that scare the crap out of someone even contemplating a shortcut.
Business needs an overseer. There must be someone ensuring the public good trumps the bottom line and right now government regulatory bodies are the best we have.
That was my theory anyway.
Then a taxi driver refused to secure my wheelchair and then refused to let me out of his cab. His conduct was extremely inappropriate but it is the cross between Kafkaesque disorienting surrealism and an episode of Fawlty Towers that came after that leaves me questioning how much regulating our elected regulators and their representatives really do.
My open letter to the Mayors and Board of Governors written shortly after it occurred is here if you wish to read the saga in detail.
And I didn’t just complain, I made suggestions – none have been responded to:
This is Taxi Driver Part Deux – The Bureaucracy.
I am in a wheelchair – although I like Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham’s idea of saying I am ‘on’ a wheelchair for the same reason you are not ‘in’ your bike or skateboard.
At any rate, I used to walk – now I roll.
That transition has meant that my experience with taxis has escalated from ‘often irritating, sometimes annoying, occasionally fun’ to ‘rarely pleasant, often frustrating/demeaning and occasionally dangerous. ‘
I try not to use them.
They don’t like stopping near cuts in the sidewalk where my wheelchair can go up – or down.
They don’t like if you don’t want to be dropped in the middle of the road on the wrong side of the street and are unwilling to cut across three lanes of rush hour traffic in your wheelchair.
They don’t like if you can’t direct them how to get where you are going even though part of why you are taking a cab is because you don’t know.
They don’t like short trips because they are too short.
They don’t like long trips because they are too long.
They don’t like securing the wheelchair.
They don’t like making change.
They don’t like debit.
People annoy them.
They don’t like when you talk to them – because they are always, always on the telephone.
Wheelchairs really annoy them.
They have to get out of the car.
They don’t like getting out of the car.
But you know, I am pretty live and let live about that kind of stuff – moodiness, grumpiness. I don’t expect people who serve me to be in a perpetual state of joy. That seems beyond the scope of what I pay for and certainly anyone who has worked with the public in any capacity can forgive some misdirected residual bleh.
I read all that stuff about Uber drivers arriving with baskets of goodies and bottles of water – and I thought, ‘yeah, that will wear off real quick.’ We’re all familiar with that feeling of getting a new job and not minding anything or anyone because you are just so damn grateful ‘they picked me’ – and looking down your nose at the bitter and cynical employees who’ve been there awhile.
But honestly, belligerence is almost a religion in the taxi industry. When I get a friendly driver – and I sometimes do and may whomever they chose to worship bless them for it – I neurotically wonder what I did or did not do the night before so I can make sure to repeat it.
This time, this driver went too far. (And considering one very rough driver shoved my chair without warning causing me to do a faceplant on the sidewalk which left me bruised and sore for days after and whose only instinctual response to me sprawled out on the pavement was to deny his culpability to the witnesses who were helping lift me up- I think that says something. Sidebar – if that nurse – I think she was a nurse -who gave him a side eye is reading this – I luv you for that look.)
This time it wasn’t the arguing and refusing to properly secure my wheelchair – I am used to that and I have the ‘firm but not threatening their ego’ thing down.
It wasn’t when he handed me a seatbelt from the backseat of the van and told me to hold onto it (like I was riding a bronco in a rodeo?) in lieu of securing my wheelchair.
It wasn’t even when I realized he out and out lied to me about securing the straps – which I discovered when I looked behind and saw them lying loose on the floor.
No – it was when I said, with as much nonchalance as I could muster after several minutes of being treated like I was invisible and inaudible – ‘you know what, I don’t think this is going to work out. Let me out and I will arrange for another ride’ and he refused. Repeatedly. Refused.
When he decided to keep me inside his taxi against my will – that was the line.
A couple of times I said ‘I don’t understand what you are thinking. You cannot keep me in here against my will.’
He only finally put down the ramp and let me out when I pulled out my phone and told him I was calling the police. That was the first time in the entire interaction that he made eye contact and acknowledged he was dealing with an actual human being.
Once I was out of the taxi I immediately called HandyDART – a public transportation service for people with disabilities that subcontracts to taxis on occasion – and there are more and more of those occasions lately, which I find worrisome on many levels – not the least of which is that HandyDART drivers are nothing like taxi drivers as this post explains. I would also note that HandyDART drivers are paid a decent wage, well-trained and unionized, all things that taxis drivers are not.
Anyway, HandyDART was who I booked the ride with – the one I had a contract with – so I figured they were the one I should call. Plus, I still had a meeting to somehow get to.
I relayed to the dispatcher what had happened – the call was recorded. I noted that several people in my building were watching and had that expression people have when they are concerned but aren’t sure if they should intervene and if so how. They had, I assume, heard the escalating volume and urgency in my voice as I demanded to be released from inside the taxi (the ramp was up behind me so I was literally trapped and went into full fight or flight mode.) I have no doubt that my voice on the telephone call was shaky as I was semi-successfully holding back tears. I was scared and furious and worst of all – feeling helpless.
Another taxi came and took me to my meeting and I wheeled home. The thought of getting back into a cab was actually harder after a few hours had passed. A month later, I always seem to find an excuse to avoid doing so still even if it means missing events or teleconferencing.
That evening I decided I needed to do something more but I had no idea what one does. So, given that the taxi was arranged by HandyDART and HandyDART is governed by Translink and Translink is governed by a Board of Governors and a Mayors Council comprised of all the mayors in the area served, I wrote an open letter to all of the above.
I posted it on my never-read by anyone blog and emailed it directly to each person.
The incident happened on January 27th, 2016. The email went out on January 28th.
To this day I have not heard back from my mayor, Gregor Robertson. Not even a form letter telling me he would reply at a later date. I did email the deputy mayor on the suggestion of someone online – and she emailed me back to tell me how busy they are. Nothing since.
I have heard from a few other mayors – Richard Stewart of Coquitlam called me the evening he received the email. Mayor Lois Jackson of Delta emailed me a personal note and asked Mike Buda, the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Council to help me. The office coordinator of Lions Bay emailed me and told me my letter would go to council. Mayor Nicole Read of Maple Ridge also sent me a personal note. And the mayor’s office in Surrey sent a reply indicating receipt.
As I say – nothing at all came or has come from the office of the Mayor of Vancouver – where I live.
Buda informed me the Vancouver Police Department had a special Taxi Team and I should contact them.
I did. A day or two later I did again. Finally after tweeting VPD, emailing them and leaving a third voicemail, I got a call.
Do you remember that call in Home Alone – ‘hyper on 2?’ Donut-eating Officer Balzak and his gift-wrapping police team. It was sort of like that but less bored, disinterest and more, I know your type and ‘listen here missy.’
Regretfully I did not record the conversation but I did take notes after — nonetheless, let’s just call this a dramatic, condensed interpretation with great liberties taken with paraphrasing. It’s not quite full gonzo journalism because there was no need to exaggerate and I do believe I have remained true to the gist of it:
Cop: So what do you want?
Me: To make a complaint.
Cop: No but what do you really want?
Me: Um well, I am concerned about this driver but also a pattern of problems with taxis.
Cop: (Like he just wedged a confession out of me) O-o-o-h-h so you have other issues — this is part of a larger agenda for you.
(I should make clear here I am not part of any political party or organization. The only group I belong to at the moment is a group of volunteer patients so if I have an agenda, it’s my own — and I don’t honestly know what it is, so it’s probably not a big one.)
Cop: Look I’ve already talked to the lady who runs Yellow Cab and I’ve dealt with her lots. She is very honest and she said he is a good employee and that no one has ever complained about him before. She said she’s already spoken to you about this and has spoken to you on a number of occasions and knows you and that’s why she’s suspended your service. She spoke to her driver and he is a good driver and he had a very different version of events.
Me: !?! Breathing, counting. I did not call this woman. I do not know what you are talking about.
I wanted to say — are you f*%@ing kidding me?
(At this point I was mad. Now my reputation was being smeared for daring to say something and I let him know — without yelling — that I was not okay with that. Perspective here -I am not Edward Snowden exposing government surveillance and abuse, I am just trying to make a simple complaint about a taxi driver. My ‘agenda’ is to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ without being tipped over, injured or held hostage. Also, I have no recollection of ever having called or spoken to this woman — ever! I suppose it could have happened some time in the past but I don’t actually use that taxi company when I am ordering a cab on my own. On a few occasions I have spoken to the manager of the company I do use regularly — including the time his driver dumped me on the sidewalk. We have always resolved things amicably — meaning I let it go — I never even got a discount for the ride that ended with me bruised and cut, so if this woman is alleging I’m a troublemaker, apparently I am not a very good one.)
Cop: Of course you both say something different. It’s always like that — he said, she said. There’s two different sides. His version and yours.
Me: Yes and one is a lie and one is the truth.
Cop: No way to tell.
Me: But you are insinuating that I am lying and I am not okay with that. I am not lying.
Cop: I didn’t say you were lying. I just think you each have your own perspective on what happened.
Me: (My eyes did a lap around my eye sockets. Just what I didn’t need — a new age relativist for a cop- is that even possible?) Yes, actually there is. You have not interviewed me. You have not asked for details of the event. You have not even met me or tried to do any of the things you as a police officer are trained to do in order to figure out who is telling the truth. You have not listened to the recording of my telephone call immediately after. You have not investigated. You have not weighed them against the obvious — I have absolutely no reason to lie here — and he has one good one.
Cop: Look it’s not like there were any witnesses.
Me: Well, actually funny you should mention that — yes there were, would you like me to direct them to contact you.
Cop: No. But you can talk to them if you want. Do you know if there’s even a law requiring them to secure the wheelchair?
Me: Wait. I’m sorry — are you asking me what the law is?
Cop: Well, I don’t know if they have to by law or not.
Me: Sorry I don’t know about whether there’s a law. But it would seem like a good thing for you to find out.
As a result of my own research, I have found there is legislation under the Motor Vehicles Act requiring the wheelchair be secured.
At one point in the discussion he basically intimated that no one else -ever – had any problems with taxis.
Cop: We have regular round-table meetings with the city and taxi industry and all I hear are good things – that people are very happy with them.
It seemed hard to believe I am the only person unhappy with taxis and especially that I am the only person with a disability who is unhappy with their service. This contradicts information given to me by several credible sources- including the Mayor of Coquitlam.
So later I called city hall and this is what I was told: Those round-table meetings the police referred to are not public and they are not posted and they only happen when one of the members requests them.
In the end the cop said he would meet with the driver and that such a meeting would be enough of a consequence on its own because it’s unusual and a pretty big deal ‘for me to call them in.’
Which of course begs the question – since that is rare – what does the taxi team do?
I was told by the aforementioned city hall staff person (in the taxi licensing department) that taxi drivers have to take special training through the Justice Institute and that they are instructed that they must secure wheelchairs and in how to do that.
I asked if there was anyone at any level of government that oversees taxi drivers – monitors and tracks them and the companies that employ them – after they are licensed and she directed me to the provincial government.
It sounded hopeful – they even have a webpage called the Taxi Bill of Rights. But we all know what rights are without the ability and/or willingness to enforce and uphold them – decorations.
I called and made a complaint. The odd thing was that I could hear him typing my name and contact details but when I explained my complaint I heard less than 10 seconds of keyboarding and then silence. This might explain the email I got later that read: ‘not securing wheelchair’ – seriously? I emailed them a copy of my letter documenting my actual complaint.
I also called HandyDART back and confirmed with them that yes, they had a record of my calling immediately after and a record of my calling them back a day or two later and that they had spoken to Yellow Cab and that no suspension of service was mentioned to them – the HandyDART representative seemed sincerely clearly shocked that I would even ask such a thing.
HandyDART has offered me a special flag on my file – they have a name for the designation so I am not the first. The marker indicates not to replace my HandyDART ride with a taxi without my consent. I have no complaint with HandyDART. I do however, remain concerned about the use of taxis in its place, something they were directed to do by Translink, the governance of which includes my mayor, along with the Board of Governors, neither of whom have replied or even acknowledged receipt of my letter.
So that is where things stand.
Would there be more accountability with Uber?
I doubt it.
But could there possibly be any less?
Right now the threat taxis feel from Uber is largely of their own making but government also plays a major role in this mess. By failing to truly regulate, monitor and hold accountable the taxi industry they have allowed it to get away with bad and sometimes outrageously abusive behaviour free from serious consequences.
The only safeguard I seem to have is if things escalate to criminal conduct I can call the police, which is what someone did about the Uber driver.
Exactly the same thing that would have happened if he were a taxi driver.
Maybe in the days the follow we will find out there were earlier indications and complaints. But even if there were, I still question whether anything would have been different if he had been a taxi driver.
My experiences, which are minor and not in any way comparable, have nonetheless caused me to realize the flaw in my regulations theory. While I still believe the concept of regulation is a good one, I grossly over-estimated how much the intent would reflect the reality.
I have always operated under the assumption that most legislation and regulation was put in place for good reason. Much of it needs to be challenged – but less so for its existence than its racial and gender bias and other such wrong-headed thinking and values that was written in invisible ink.
I’ve never been arrogant enough to think the people who came before me were complete idiots so I generally assume that a lot of the rules were created after something went horribly, awfully wrong or because someone saw it was heading that way.
What I radically under-estimated is the ability of government to destroy and/or misdirect those legitimate concerns into something a) self-serving; b) useless; c) counter-productive to the original intent; d) all of the above.
Take for example the de-institutionalization of people with mental illness. The original proponents no doubt saw how the mass incarceration of people usually did not go a long way to help their mental health or nurture and sustain connections to the rest of the community. I seriously doubt any of them said, ‘Hey, let’s open the doors and dump people on the street, leave them in poverty and cut off virtually every support they need to survive and thrive.’
I mean, I wasn’t there – but, I’m just guessing.
I rolled into the haze of my own naivety when I assumed that when we are told the taxi industry is regulated, it meant for my safety – not just to collect licensing fees.
So going back to the tragic events and the inevitable think pieces that will result – I hope instead of just discussing regulating Uber – we will talk about the need to regulate everyone in the industry. For real.
An email from the Passenger Transportation Branch of the BC Government – without a single person speaking to me, let alone meeting with me- came today announcing everything is sorted out.
In the reply I am told they have spoken to the same woman at the cab company that the police spoke to and part of her reply included “I find that the driver did error in not securing her wheel chair properly at the back, but do not find reason to suspend him. He has been spoken to by ______, and myself and I am confident going forward that he will never do this again. He truly is a very nice man who does not mean any harm to anyone.”
I never alleged he wasn’t a nice man. He may well be. He wasn’t to me. And he did much more than fail to secure the wheelchair properly at the back – or the front. But I guess there are no regulations against confining someone against their will.
The note ends: “Thank you for bringing this matter to the attention of the Passenger Transportation Branch. Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.”