SINGAPORE: He cruises along Singapore’s roads from seven in the evening to dawn, and like every cabby, he hopes to pick up as many passengers as possible. But at times, 73-year-old Koh Kee Chuan says, he can’t help but pass a potential customer by.
"If I see the passenger's drunk, unable to walk straight – I try to avoid picking him or her up,” he told Channel NewsAsia in Mandarin.
Mr Koh has been driving a taxi for a decade. While some may frown at turning passengers down, he said this was how he avoids one of the main pitfalls of his trade – aggressive or even violent passengers.
“I had a fellow driver who picked up a passenger at the airport,” he recalled. “It must have been a misunderstanding, but the passenger grew angry and hit his head from the back seat.”
“So of course we’d be worried,” he said, adding that conflict ensued usually because a passenger disagreed with the route cab drivers took or, more seriously, if a passenger tried to avoid paying fares.
CABBIES "TOLD NOT TO RETALIATE"
While cases of physical violence are generally isolated, verbal abuse has become more commonplace in the transport sector, cabbies and bus drivers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said.
Taxi companies Channel NewsAsia spoke to said cabbies were told "not to retaliate" when faced with threatening situations.
Mr Koh's company, Trans-Cab, said it saw about one to two assault cases every year, although some cases went unreported. When asked how it prepared cabbies to handle such situations, the company said it informed drivers “to call the police if they encounter violent passengers".
(File photo: TODAY)
According to Comfort DelGro, all of its taxis are fitted with a distress button which puts the cabbie in touch with a 24-hour hotline. The company owns Comfort Taxi and CityCab, with a combined fleet size of 17,000 – the largest in Singapore.
The company’s group corporate communications officer Tammy Tan said it also helped cabbies who had been assaulted with their medical claims and losses and waived the taxi rentals for affected drivers for the day. She added that Comfort DelGro also compensated cabbies for their losses in income when the drivers were required to testify in court about their assaults.
"Our cabbies deserve to work in a safe environment like everybody else,” Ms Tan said. “We will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep our cabbies safe."
Mr Koh, however, said he wondered if more could be done.
“Cabbies need to feel protected,” the taxi driver said. “Hopefully the company and the government can do more to help us feel safe."
LEARNING HOW TO HANDLE ROAD RAGE
Before obtaining their taxi licences, these drivers are required to learn how to handle road rage as part of the Taxi Driver Vocational License course.
A training guide by the Singapore Taxi Academy. (Photo: Kenneth Lim)
Conducted by the Singapore Taxi Academy, the syllabus includes communication skills such as how to use as few words as possible to save time and avoid conflicts with passengers.
Trans Cab said it was exploring the possibility of providing even more training for drivers on how to deal with violent passengers.
However, with the shortening of the course from 60 hours to 25 hours last year, fitting in new material may be a challenge.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) had said in a news release in April last year that the course was “updated and streamlined to take into account changing industry practices and new technology,” adding that this was based on feedback from “stakeholders such as commuters, taxi drivers and taxi companies".
SELF-DEFENCE LESSONS FOR BUS DRIVERS?
The bus industry is set to adopt more measures to raise the safety of drivers. LTA added in a separate news release that the Singapore Bus Academy was developing more training programmes for existing bus professionals. Channel NewsAsia understands that incident management courses could be included.
Bus operator Go-Ahead suggested that the academy could consider adding sessions on self-defence techniques for bus drivers.
The UK-based operator said its buses in the UK were fitted with assault alarms and code red radio systems, although these options may need to undergo feasibility studies for the local context should they be considered for Singapore.
Tower Transit also revealed that it was partnering with the Certis CISCO Academy to teach drivers how to deal with conflicts and hostile situations. The sessions by the private security firm will take place at the Jurong East and Bukit Batok bus interchanges, it said.
Tower Transit operations director Stuart Thomas said that although bus drivers are taught how to deal with conflicts as part of their basic training, in "rare instances" such situations may still escalate.
“This is why we've decided to go one step extra and provide them with additional skills that they'll find useful in dealing with the more difficult parts of their job."
Meanwhile, SBST - which said it has seen about 23 assault cases in the past five years - said it would consider what else it could do to improve driver safety.
"A bus captain can wake up way before sunrise to start work, and by the time they finish their last trip, it's way past midnight,” SBST’s senior vice president of bus operations Ang Wei Neng said. “They do not deserve to be assaulted, they do not deserve to be punched.”
(File photo: Ngau Kai Yan)
SBST bus drivers, too, have an emergency button they can press to alert the control centre to dispatch a traffic inspector when a situation arises. The drivers also go through incident management courses to defuse and de-escalate conflicts and attend regular refresher courses on the topic.
At one such course witnessed by Channel NewsAsia, the instructor told his students: “Do not raise your voice or lose your temper when dealing with rude customers. Do not challenge the customers or their complaints or have a fight with them.”
Bus companies usually cover the medical expenses when drivers are assaulted, and work with the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) to report the cases to the authorities.
"EVERY CASE IS ONE CASE TOO MANY": UNION
NTWU executive secretary Melvin Yong said that assault cases are "isolated" as commuters are generally respectful of bus captains.
“However, every case is one case too many. Any acts of violence, any forms of abuse should not be tolerated.”
Public transport workers are currently served by the Protection from Harassment Act, but Mr Yong said more could be done.
The Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC said he would also be raising the issue to the Public Transport Tripartite Committee, which will meet in the first quarter of 2017. The committee includes bus operators, as well as transport and manpower authorities.
“I believe everyone must play their part to create a better working environment for all our workers,” Mr Yong said.