Improving bus driver safety

Challenges, measures and strategies for reducing the risk of assaults on transit operators

According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, 2,000 transit workers are assaulted every year in this country. This past spring the issue came to something of a head, as four Kelowna, B.C., transit drivers were assaulted, in separate incidents, on the same day.

Less than a month later, in a show of solidarity, transit drivers from across the country gathered in Kelowna and called for measures to help them stay safe on the job. The march attracted national media attention and turned a spotlight on the issue.

“These assaults are just senseless incidents,” says Paul Thorp, national president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Canada. “Every day we get reports of assaults from right across Canada — they could be anything from verbal assaults, thrown liquids, being spat on, threats, or actual physical violence.”

Some regions in Canada have seen significant spikes in violence against transit drivers in recent years. Assaults on drivers in Winnipeg, for example, jumped 54 per cent between 2014 and 2015.

A 2011 report for the U.S Transportation Research Board found transit workers were at higher risk of violence than other jobs because of their daily contact with the public. Typically, bus drivers sit within arms length of customers and regularly engage them — putting them on the front lines for exposure to violence.

In theory, laws against physical violence — and the punishments for breaking those laws — help keep bus drivers safe.

Assault is a punishable offence, as covered by the Canadian Criminal Code. As of Feb. 2015, Bill S-221 amended the Criminal Code to call for up to 10 years imprisonment for assaulting a transit operator.

“With this bill, the penalties are increased because we’re a front-line worker,” says Thorp. “This was something that we spent years lobbying for.” Offenders, however, aren’t necessarily serving the longer sentences outlined in the bill. “We have a lot of lawyers who plea bargain down the sentence to time served or a slap on the wrist,” says Thorp. “We really need lawyers to stop doing that and we need judges to uphold the law and enforce the penalty.”

Risk assessments

Since the transportation sector is federally regulated, the Canada Labour Code also applies. As of 2008, Part XX of the Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, Violence Prevention in the Workplace, states that public transit system operators are required to meet a number of legal requirements to protect bus drivers from violence.

“Employers must conduct a risk assessment that focuses on all potential exposures to violence that drivers would have,” says David Hyde, a workplace safety and security consultant and violence prevention strategist. “Then, they are required to take steps to mitigate the drivers’ risk.

“In my experience, those assessments are not done in a meaningful way,” says Hyde. “They’re not done in a way that teases out the real causes of the violence or the real exposures that drivers face.

“The assessments tend to be perfunctory,” says Hyde, and the resulting safety measures don’t address the real problems. “It’s just, ‘Let’s put cameras up,’ or ‘Let’s put systems in place where if the driver’s under threat he can flip a switch and a light goes on at the back of the bus and a signal is sent to transit control.’

“Those measures are put in place and in the meantime the driver is still getting assaulted,” says Hyde. “So I think there are gaps in the assessments that are mandated under federal law.”

Root causes of assaults

The Transit Co-operative Research Program (TCRP) published a report in 2011 outlining the biggest risk factors for bus drivers across North America. The report noted the highest-risk time periods for assaults are in the late evening/overnight/early morning hours, followed by the afternoon peak period.

The report also found the primary factors contributing to assaults are fare enforcement and intoxicated passengers or those under the influence of drugs, followed by rule enforcement other than fare enforcement, youth-related violence and passengers with mental illness.

To improve the situation, says Hyde, “everything begins with a risk assessment.” That includes the collection of data to paint a clear picture about how, when and why assaults happen. “Looking back through several years’ data you should be able to say, for example, we’ve had 83 incidents of spitting, 60 of threats, and 10 of violence,” says Hyde. “Then consider, when is this happening? Why? What was the disturbance over? Was somebody angry about a fare? Is that the root cause? Or was someone angry because the bus was late? Did the driver stop them because they were doing something wrong? Was the person visibly drunk?”

It’s important to note that regions, neighbourhoods and particular routes have their own patterns. “There’s not a single prescription and there’s not a single set of risk factors,” say Hyde. “So if I’m driving a bus in downtown Toronto on a pretty active route at midnight, that’s very different than driving a rural route where I might be more isolated, more alone.” He adds, “What I need to secure myself in those two scenarios might be very different.”

Assessments should include perspectives from multiple sources, as well. “You should not only talk to the bus drivers and get their experiences, but you’re also talking to a sampling of passengers, you’re talking to the transit security people, you’re talking to the police, you’re looking at statistics for security in other jurisdictions,” says Hyde.

Mitigating risk with training

Once the biggest risk factors have been identified, transit operators should be offering training to help drivers identify and handle potentially violent situations.

“Situational awareness training is key,” says Hyde. “That would include being aware of factors around them that could increase the risk of violence, communicating in conflict and de-escalation techniques.”

This kind of training does go on, says Hyde, but it’s not always aimed at the specific challenges drivers face on their routes. “We’ve seen some transit systems adopt this kind of training before — it’s not brand new,” says Hyde. “Drivers are being trained right now, but the trouble is, the training is often disconnected from the realities they face on the bus routes.” Instead, he says, “They need to know how to gauge a situation, how to read somebody. If It’s 10 p.m. and you’re on a route where you know there a lots of bars and pubs and someone comes on looking a bit glassy eyed, that’s someone you want to be aware of and you don’t want to be combative with. You don’t want to be digging your heels in about fare enforcement.”

The TCRP report finds that a high percentage of assaults are instigated by fare issues (fare evasion, short pay, transfer disputes, questionable fare media or lack of ID for special fares). How a driver handles these situations is a key risk factor, according to the report, noting transit system operators believe a significant number of assaults may have been instigated by the behaviour or action of the bus operator, making driver training in conflict mitigation and diversity a top priority.

Systems for security

“Connected to the assessment and the training are the protocols and process — the operational apparatuses of the transit system,” says Hyde.

When payment is difficult or a bus is chronically late, for example, “that adds to people’s frustration and they might take that out on the driver, because the driver is the physical embodiment of that transit system, on that night, on that route,” says Hyde. “The transit operator has a big role to play, to make sure they’re not creating a system that could ramp up a situation and put a driver at greater risk.”

Processes for handling potentially violent situations need to clear, as well, says Hyde. “If the driver steps away from what they should be doing — driving the bus — to deal with fare evasion, it’s going to make them late,” says Hyde. That compounds the problem. “Now the bus is going to be late for the next steps and people are going to be even angrier.” What’s more, says Hyde, there’s little to be gained by instigating a confrontation. “The fare evader is not respecting your authority, so how is that going to change when you go to the back of the bus to speak to him?”

The TCRP report notes that many transit systems use some type of policing or security patrols to handle such problems.

Transit employees responsible solely for enforcing the rules can be specially prepared for potentially violent situations. “Security may have batons or pepper spray or handcuffs,” says Hyde. “They have the tools and ability to deal with fare evasion more effectively than the driver.”

The report notes, however, that for many operators budget and resource restraints present challenges to maintaining regular security presence on buses.

Cameras, panic buttons and partitions

Some transit operators have put cameras on buses as a preventative measure. “If everyone who gets on the bus sees a sign that says there are cameras here, that may deter a few people or may make them behave differently,” says Hyde. “It can help deter, or help to investigate and prosecute when there’s been an attack.”

The ATU is lobbying for panic buttons on every transit bus, for fast help in the case of emergencies. “This device would automatically link bus drivers with the police, and they would be able to send the authorities directly to the location because it’s all GPS-controlled,” says Thorp.

Physical barriers between drivers and passengers are another option. “The ATU supports transparent partitions around bus operator seating, capable of withstanding gunfire,” says Thorp. It’s a measure already in place in many regions, including Toronto, where every bus and streetcar has screens.

“A physical barrier like this has worked very well in Europe, where the operator is totally segregated from the public,” says Thorp.

A barrier or screen can be retractable, allowing a driver to leave it tucked away during low-risk hours and routes, then pull it into place during higher-risk periods — in line with route safety data and a driver’s comfort level.

Not everyone agrees on screens, however. “Screens are debated by the drivers,” says Hyde. “Some feel screens impact sight lines and negatively impact their ability to drive, and some feel as though it segregates them and puts them in a little jail cell.”

“The operators enjoy speaking with the public and they love engaging and answering questions,” says Thorp. “The problem we face is that if this barrier is going to save one of my operators, then that’s the way we have to go.”

In addition to driver resistance, cost can be an obstacle to screen installation as well. “Retrofitting screens across a whole system can be expensive,” says Hyde, but he points out it’s the only surefire way to keep drivers safe. “You can have myriad different programs but there’s only one way to stop a fist from physically hitting a driver’s body and that is to have a screen.”

  Effectively improving driver safety involves the experience and perspectives of many, says Hyde. “It really is a team effort, it’s the bus system operator company getting together with the union, drivers and safety and security professionals, and all working together to say, ‘Okay what are we facing, what’s the risk, what are the options, what’s the best repertoire on this bus system on this route, at this time of day?’”

According to Hyde, assessments, data analysis, safety measures and even public awareness campaigns can work in concert to set a tone. “It’s the way the bus is presented, the way the driver is visibly protected, the demeanor and actions of the driver, the visible camera with a sign — all of these things help enforce the message that there is oversight and that there are behavioral expectations on the bus,” says Hyde.

“Our operators are very passionate about their jobs, they care about their passengers, and they want to make sure they experience the best service possible,” says Thorp. “We’re asking for people to treat us with the same respect that we treat them. For anyone to have to go work in fear of being assaulted in any way is absolutely unacceptable.”

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