Management & Operations

Is Enough Being Done to Stop the Assault on Bus Operators?

Posted on August 13, 2009 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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[IMAGE]Operator.jpg[/IMAGE]On June 4, 2009, 17-year-old Darrion Scott boarded a New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) bus with her two-year-old baby and was asked, repeatedly, to fold up her stroller, but refused. Eventually, Scott would tear off the top of her baby's milk bottle and pour the contents on top of Hanella Johnson, an RTA driver for 18 years, before stabbing her. Johnson survived; however, that is not always the case. In December 2008, for example, New York City Transit (NYCT) operator Edwin Thomas was repeatedly stabbed, fatally, by a man after confronting him for fare evasion.

No matter what precautions are taken, bus operators are definitely on the front lines when it comes to dealing with customers, and many times attacks, which include physical and verbal assaults and being spit upon, happen to them all too often for reasons as simple as asking a customer to pay the proper fare.

While many in the public transportation industry have differing opinions on whether operator assaults are currently escalating, many feel that it is a problem, even if it occurs once in a blue moon. Especially when it ends in an operator injury, or worse, a fatality.

So, what are transit agencies doing to help protect these ambassadors of their systems? The solutions range from situation mitigation and/or self-defense training to calling for stronger enforcement of federal laws or the implementation of stricter or brand new state laws. The bottom line is, whether it's these things or installing cameras aboard their entire fleets, stepping up police activity or issuing pepper gel to operators, transit agencies and the industry as a whole are working diligently to do what they can to protect operators.

Is it a huge issue?

Many assaults stem from confrontations involving operators and passengers who refuse to pay the proper fare. The prevailing opinion industry-wide seems to be that assaults on bus operators have been a problem for years, yet many are quick to admit that it has not become a problem of epidemic proportions. Still, the industry is not satisfied with assaults happening at any time.

"Winnipeg has a rather low number of assaults compared with other transit properties. That said, any instances are too many," says Winnipeg Transit's Director Dave Wardrop, who had an incident on his system that included a driver and two passengers being attacked by three would-be muggers just last year.

"We carry about 440,000 people a day. In 2008 for example, we had about 41 total reports of assaults," adds Tom Lambert, chief of police for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Houston Metro). "We don't have a lot of those events compared to the people we carry and service we put on the street, but we're really concerned about any time you have an employee that's trying to provide a safe service on the street that is being threatened."

Unfortunately, there is no standard system for tracking driver assault statistics, however, most agency officials METRO spoke to reported the number of assaults that occur on their systems average from less than five to the  low 60s per year. Those numbers are often much greater in larger metropolitan cities.

For example, aboard NYCT's system, there were 236 bus driver assaults from Jan. 1 to Dec. 9, 2008, 43 of which involved fare evasion, while 67 involved someone spitting at the driver.

Meanwhile, some agencies saw numbers spike somewhat over the last year or so due to increased ridership, a downed economy and the cutting of services on the more popular routes, causing them to become overcrowded.

"You put all those things together, and you get a bunch of angry people that don't have jobs and are in a confined place, so tempers begin to flare, and that's what we've seen lately," says Rod Baker, chief of transit police at Lakewood, Wash.-based Pierce Transit. Baker adds, however, that even though the larger spike they are seeing due to these factors is in passenger-on-passenger assaults, it is still yet another factor adding to the possibility that a driver assault may occur.

Greg Hull, director, Operations, Safety and Security Programs, at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), agrees that an economic downturn could definitely have an impact. "We aren't hearing that there are any dramatic spikes going on," he says. "We do know, however, that events can happen in waves sometimes and it can often be attributed to local economic conditions."

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