Being a bus driver is probably one of the most stressful job you’ll find. You’re battling with traffic and poor drivers on the road, and constantly dealing with members of the public, a percentage of whom are trouble. Often these troublesome passengers include teens who have had too much to drink and want to show off to their friends, and depending on what route you are on, people with serious mental-health issues with proclivities towards violence.
Aggression between passengers or against drivers is nothing new. Racial slurs, threats and brawls have been reported across Canada in recent years, and previously violence against taxi drivers caused much concern. But is a fear of violence on our public transit systems justified, and what is being done or can be done to prevent such crimes?
These questions are just a few that are posed at the aftermath as two bus drivers were involved in an unprovoked assault in the lower mainland in just one month. A bus driver in Surrey suffered a broken nose from a passenger who was leisurely enjoying a cigarette outside the bus when he was told that the bus was about to leave. A female driver in Metro Vancouver was the victim of an earlier violent and unprovoked assault when three young women punched her and dragged her by her hair after being asked to get off the bus due to not paying their fare and openly drinking alcohol that police believe was stolen from a liquor store.
Prevalence of crime on public transportation
The number of assaults, including criminal acts such as death threats, physical abuse and spitting on bus drivers, has gone up over the last three years. According to the union representing about 3,400 transit operators in the lower mainland, Unifor local 111, there have been a staggering 40 attacks against Coast Mountain bus drivers in 2014.
By this time last year, there was 32 assaults on drivers and 134 total assaults for 2013, which is up from 117 assaults in 2012. Most assaults on bus drivers including punching, pushing, spitting on or spitting in the drivers face.
In March of this year, three women were charged with a vicious, unprovoked attack on a female Coast Mountain bus driver. In February, a 23-year-old man was charged with robbery and breaching bail conditions in connection with the assault of a bus driver at the Surrey City Central bus loop. Last summer, a man pointed a handgun at a Kelowna bus driver and threatened to kill him. He approached the driver’s window after getting off the bus and pulled the trigger three times. The pistol made a clicking sound each time, terrifying the driver. That same summer, a 31-year-old woman stabbed a Kelowna bus driver with a syringe and a Vancouver passenger sucker-punched a driver and shattered his orbital bone because the driver asked him to pay his fare.
In 2012 a man assaulted a bus driver when he was refused a free ride; the man also assaulted a female passenger. Another passenger threatened to slash the throat of a bus driver, and yet another passenger spat at a bus driver.
Law enforcement responses
So, how have governments and law enforcement reacted to the increased perception of violent crime on our public transport networks?
Members of Unifor local 111 are in favour of a bill introduced in Parliament in the fall by MP Ralph Goodale that would lead to tougher penalties for those convicted. Bill C-533 calls for changes to the Criminal Code that would force judges to hand down stiffer sentences to those convicted of committing any criminal offence against an on-duty transit worker, similar to laws that make assaulting a police officer a more serious crime.
The resurrected bill, which died when the last election was called, is supported by the Canadian Urban Transit Association, which says addressing bus driver assaults has been one of its three top priorities since 2011 when the number of reported attacks against bus drivers across the country reached 2,061. The first bill was introduced that year following the well-documented assault on Edmonton transit driver Tom Bregg, who was beaten into a coma by a passenger in 2009.
Bob Paddon, executive vice-president at TransLink, told media that he agreed the federal government should enact tougher penalties for people convicted of assaulting a transit operator. TransLink was previously talking to Justice Canada about what can be done about fines and penalties. He also said if drivers are reconsidering installing barriers, TransLink and Coast Mountain will have that discussion.
The union is also in strong favour of installing barriers for bus drivers, but only on condition that the driver can choose whether to use one. WorkSafeBC has said in the past that barriers would be mandatory for all drivers and drivers then rejected installing the barriers. Some bus drivers feel claustrophobic behind the shields, while others are working on routes where they don’t feel it is necessary to use one.
Prevention and perspective
There is no doubt that acts of aggression on buses, trains or in taxis are a cause of concern. Drivers needs to feel safe in their workplaces and passengers should be able to feel they will have secure and tranquil journeys.
Transit Police have launched a new campaign warning the public to not touch the operator. The campaign is the latest move by authorities intent on better protecting the men and women who move Metro Vancouver’s commuting masses.
Transit union officials have also increased the reward for helping convict anyone who assaults a bus driver to a maximum of $15,000, up from $2,000. Coast Mountain has increased foot patrols around the bus loops and stations, have made all buses a fare-paid zone, installed CCTV cameras, and have given drivers access to a stealth buzzer that alerts TransLink’s operators to an emergency on a bus.
There are steps being implemented to ensure the safety of bus drivers and those using public transit. Authorities have put strategies in place to ensure safety and although data shows that there is an increase in transit-related violence, it is still relatively safe to travel on BC’s public transit networks. However, this doesn’t remove the need for more research and resources into the effectiveness of existing strategies and finding new ways to keep drivers and passengers safe.