Fare justice

Stiffer penalties for assault called on to help protect bus drivers

On April 22, 2013, John Karagianis, a bus driver with OC Transpo in Ottawa was repeatedly punched, dragged from his bus and violently beaten by an unruly passenger — he suffered a broken nose and cracked rib. But Paul Ness, who pleaded guilty to the attack, won’t spend any time in jail.

When the sentence was handed down in October, Ottawa’s largest bus driver union was stunned by Ness’ 12-month suspended sentence and 12-month probation. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279, which is pushing for stiffer penalties for assaults against bus drivers, reported 62 incidents of violence against drivers last year, including being splashed with a cup of urine and being spat upon.

These types of incidents, however, are not uncommon. More than 2,000 attacks are aimed at transit operators every year across Canada. In 2011, 2,061 bus drivers were assaulted, according to the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), from being punched in the head to knife attacks and sexual assault.

It’s one of the reasons why Ralph Goodale, MP for Saskatchewan’s Wascana riding, proposed private member bill C-533 in 2013.

The act would amend the Criminal Code to protect public transportation workers, making the assault of on-duty transit operators an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes (meaning Karagianis’ attacker would have likely received a much stiffer sentence).

“Currently, perpetrators could be charged with assault but no special attention is paid to the fact that you’re a transit operator,” says Goodale. But, he added, by the nature of their employment, bus drivers are called upon by the public to put themselves in a vulnerable position.

Goodale expects legislation to be in place soon. 

“The issue has been raised in the House of Commons before — in fact, by all three political parties — so it seems to be an idea that has a pretty general consensus behind it that the issue is important,” he says.

“It’s a very challenging job,” says Michael Roschlau, president and CEO of Toronto-based CUTA, a not-for-profit association representing 120 public transit systems across Canada, as well as governments, public sector affiliates and private sector businesses.

Bus drivers are responsible for driving a large, heavy vehicle in unpredictable traffic conditions, during any type of weather, to a predetermined schedule, while at the same time collecting fares and playing a customer service role.

“Anybody can get on the bus,” says Roschlau. “There are a lot of judgment calls that need to be made about all of these factors — traffic, weather,
customer requests. If someone is a quarter short on fare, do we challenge that or not? It’s easy from a customer perspective to underestimate what’s involved in that job.”

Many bus drivers start their shift at 4 a.m. and work until noon, or start at noon and work until after midnight — due to split shifts.

“It’s not unusual that 20 or 30 per cent of operators will be working split shifts of some kind,” says Roschlau. “You end up with a really long day (and) you might not get weekends off for the first 10 years.”

Some 5,000 transit operators, for example, work at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). New hires are at the bottom of the seniority scale and have to accept the shifts that are left over.

“A bus operator is a very solitary job — you’re in constant contact with customers, but out of contact with your peers,” says Roschlau. 

On top of this, bus drivers have to deal with everything from frustrated riders, drunken partygoers and fare evaders to road rage from other motorists.

And, in today’s world of social media, a frustrated passenger could snap a photo, tweet it and post it on Facebook — whether their complaint has any merit or not. 

“Today’s instant-image world means that if you’re in the public eye and you’re wearing a uniform, you’re vulnerable to any kind of publicity,” says Roschlau. “These are realities our industry has to live with and face.”

Perhaps more concerning, though, is violence against bus drivers. 

“Often violence is spontaneous, it’s not premeditated, it’s acting out of frustration or anger that (passengers) generally brought with them to the bus stop,” says Spencer McDonald, president and founder of Thinking Driver in Surrey, B.C., which produces and delivers driver safety training products and services across North America.

“I don’t think knowledge of stiffer penalties is even going to be in their reality in the moment of the assault,” he says, which is why it’s so important for bus drivers to learn how to defend themselves or deflect attempts at violence against them. “It’s imperative for them to also know people management and conflict resolution skills to keep themselves safe by, in most cases, de-escalating situations.”

On the technical side, there is an increasing prevalence of surveillance cameras on vehicles and in facilities.

“To some extent they’re a deterrent, but they’re also useful after the fact if something has happened,” says Roschlau.

A study by the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), Quebec’s largest transit operator, found drivers of buses with visible security cameras were less likely to be assaulted.

To date, about half of STM’s 1,700 buses are equipped with cameras. 

“We’re aiming for 100 per cent,” says Hélène Noël, spokesperson for STM. STM has seen the number of assaults against bus drivers drop from 133 in 2007 to 74 in 2012 — a decrease of 44 per cent.

Still, in 2011-12, 40 per cent of assaults occurred in buses equipped with cameras, so technology is not always a deterrent. “(But the cameras) help us in investigating the assaults when they occur,” says Noël.

“Sometimes the union will bring Plexiglas into the discussion,” she added. “A lot of bus drivers do like contact with customers and don’t feel the threat is big enough to close themselves into a restricted space.”

STM’s buses are equipped with an emergency button; when pressed, a signal is sent to a co-ordination centre, where an operator can hear what’s going on in the bus. The operator then immediately calls a supervisor, the safety and control department, and the police. STM also has 100 inspectors on the road.

But training is a key component. In 2006, STM created a driver safety enhancement program aimed at reducing the risk of assaults and their consequences. The first level provides bus drivers with tools to avoid conflict, while the second level deals with stress management. 

“We have also developed protocols around assault for rapid response and to provide legal assistance,” says Noël.

“Training tries to equip operators with skills to avoid snapping when the rubber band is about to break,” says Roschlau.

Oftentimes, this happens around fare and transfer disputes. 

“They’re tricky situations, they happen all the time, and it really puts the transit operator at the front line of those potential confrontations,” says Roschlau.

Each transit system has its own policy on fare enforcement. Generally, the rule is not to risk your life for a fare. In the end “there are ways of defusing a potential conflict and ways of encouraging a conflict,” says Roschlau. “In the heat of the moment it’s sometimes difficult to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to something — someone calls you a name or uses a four-letter word.”

CUTA provides training on how to turn complaints into opportunities, how to diffuse difficult or dangerous situations, and how to manage stress on an ongoing basis. This training is typically incorporated into the training transit operators provide on site for employees.

“Professionals understand basic defensive driving practices,” says McDonald. “That doesn’t mean there’s no place for refresher courses, but to simply refresh a driver on simple practices misses the major area that requires training and that is on self-management — the driver’s ability to control his or her own emotions and reactivity in the face of challenges from other drivers, unruly passengers, weather.”

Aside from tools to help drivers deal with stress, there’s also an increasing need to provide them with support after a traumatic incident has occurred.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can take place after any acute trauma — and bus drivers are particularly vulnerable. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that follows a traumatic incident, such as witnessing a suicide or being physically assaulted.

Those suffering from PTSD often relive the experience over and over in their heads, resulting in symptoms such as feeling isolated, helpless or fearful.

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) of Ontario reported in 2008 that TTC drivers suffer from PTSD at four times the rate of Toronto police officers. Many transit operators, such as STM, now offer support for workers suffering from PTSD.

Still, when incidents do occur, the “judicial system is not equipped to treat transit operators at the right level,” says Roschlau. “The issue we’re facing is there isn’t enough of a deterrent.”

This reflects the feedback Goodale often receives from bus drivers — that the consequences aren’t considered serious enough, so the offences keep happening.

New legislation would send a strong message, says Goodale.

“It’s an idea that’s relevant and timely,” he says. “(Federal Justice Minister) Peter MacKay is talking about victims’ rights — I’m hopeful we can develop a good, solid, non-partisan consensus in the House that this kind of an amendment needs to be done.”

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].