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A leopard-print top hat that is the prototype for her taxi's roof light adorns Crissy McDow's vehicle in Halifax.

Darren Calabrese

The big leopard-print top hat on the roof, ready to light up as a signal when the vehicle is free to pick up passengers, would set it apart from other taxis. But the more important difference would be inside: the guarantee of a female driver for clients who would be more comfortable with one.

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After a few high-profile sexual-assault accusations in Halifax leveled at people driving taxis, or those posing as cabbies, Crissy McDow believes there’s a broader need for her service, Lady Drive Her. Restricted now to doing airport pick-ups and drop-offs, she wants regulators to create a new class of licence that will let her operate throughout the city like a regular taxi company – and start putting that top hat to use.

Variations on such a service have been launched in a few other Canadian cities, but a company of female cabbies would be unique among the country’s major municipalities. The idea is now being studied by city staff as part of a broader review of Halifax’s vehicle-for-hire industry. With a report expected to come to council in the next few months, the proposal has raised debate in the city’s taxi industry, where some question the scale of risk to female passengers and argue the company is trying to jump the regulatory queue.

“Laws and regulations have to be put up with the times,” Ms. McDow counters. “Bad things are happening to good people, and my customers don’t want to be the next person it happens to. And I just want to provide that service, give them a choice.”

The amalgamated Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) caps the number of licensed taxis at 1,000. According to staff, there are 1,463 drivers using these vehicles and less than 3 per cent of drivers are female.

Such a ratio is not unusual in many cities. A work environment that involves late hours and sharing a vehicle with strangers can discourage some women from the job. Entrepreneurs in a number of cities have tried to address this with transportation companies aimed at women, including She Taxis in New York and Pink Ladies in London.

Canada also has a few offerings aimed at women, though not formal taxi companies. Ikwe Safe Rides is a non-profit in Winnipeg and DriveHER is a ride-hailing firm that did a beta test of its app in March and is planning to launch this coming week in downtown Toronto.

DriveHER founder Aisha Addo, who was prompted to start the firm after a taxi ride in which the driver made her uncomfortable with personal and sexualized conversation, said that more than 3,000 people signed up during the beta test.

“When you look at the transportation landscape, concerns with women were not necessarily taken seriously,” she said. “So we wanted to create a space where they got that alternative and they got that access to safe and comfortable transportation.”

In Halifax, the continuing male dominance of the taxi industry carries uncomfortable implications for some women.

“In terms of barriers to access to support services here, often times people name transportation because they don’t feel safe,” said Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. “People often disclose their experiences of being sexually harassed, even stalked by cab drivers … and, you know, incidents where they have been sexually assaulted.”

A 2015 allegation of sexual assault, in which police said they found a taxi passenger passed out and partly naked with the driver holding her urine-stained underwear, got national prominence after a judge sparked outrage by acquitting the suspect and saying in his oral ruling that “clearly, a drunk can consent.”

The comment and ruling prompted more than 100 complaints to the Nova Scotia Judicial Council. Although the acquittal was later thrown out and a new trial ordered, the case shone a light on the issue of passenger vulnerability.

However, Dave Buffett, president of the HRM Taxi Association, argues that while any assault or case of harassment is unacceptable, the overall statistics do not suggest a crisis. He noted that the industry does about four million trips annually and assaults, he says, are rare.

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“Although it’s a horrible situation and it’s a very regrettable situation for anybody, would you buy a lottery ticket with a one in four million chance of winning?” he said. “The answer’s probably no.”

Mr. Buffett says he doesn’t believe there’s a demand for a dedicated service, saying female cabbies tell him passengers rarely ask for these drivers’ phone numbers, which would allow the client to contact them for subsequent trips.

Brian Herman, president of Casino Taxi, the biggest vehicle-for-hire firm in Halifax, did not want to comment on Ms. McDow’s proposal, saying he would be “barbecued by somebody somewhere,” no matter what position he took. But he added there might be a way to address the idea as part of a bigger industry shift.

“If we’re getting into creating multiple classes of licence for different vehicles and different folks based on gender, etc., more than likely what should occur and would probably be more equitable for all would be, you know, really revisit the total, the cap on available vehicle for hire,” he said.

“I think Uber is starting to push the taxi industry in that particular direction. So perhaps that needs to be the discussion, as opposed to creating multiple classes of licences for different individuals based on, you know, gender or any other factors.”

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