Transit drivers deserve a safe workplace
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/07/2022 (241 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health Act requires employers to protect the safety of its workers. Winnipeg Transit employees can be excused for scoffing.
The latest in a spree of violent attacks on bus drivers occured last Sunday, when a passenger thought to be intoxicated tried to stab the driver by reaching around the plastic shield that partially surrounds the operator’s seat. The knife came within inches of the driver, who warned passengers to flee before he himself squeezed out through a side window.
The incident was alarming, but unsurprising. A spokesperson for the bus operators’ union said since June, the union has recorded 16 assaults against drivers. That doesn’t include violence between passengers or at bus shelters.
Who among us would tolerate a workplace with such a high risk of being attacked?
Police do, of course. They encounter such risk in their jobs, which is why they work in pairs and have weapons, including guns.
By contrast, bus drivers can’t legally carry defensive weapons. What’s more, they can’t keep watch on the passengers behind them because their duty is to face forward and focus on the road, without anyone to watch their back in the event passengers have hostile intentions.
One would think their employer, the City of Winnipeg, would take all possible measures to protect employees whose job places them in such vulnerable positions. One would be wrong to think that.
A Winnipeg Transit spokeswoman told the Free Press this week the safety of its drivers and passengers is of the utmost importance. Those were the right words to say but, when it comes to action, it’s a stretch to describe the safety measures as “utmost.”
Yes, there’s driver-safety training, and buses are outfitted with partial safety shields. And video and audio surveillance from a command centre monitors buses for confrontations, although any violence caught at central control is likely to be over by the time help arrives at the bus’s location.
Transit has also hired more inspectors, who wear body armour and are trained to de-escalate confrontations. It’s unclear how many inspectors there are, or which routes they ride, but they’re obviously doing an inadequate job. Police statistics show the number of on-bus attacks increased from 191 calls in 2019 to 252 in 2021, and continues to rise.
If Transit really believed driver safety is of utmost importance, it would heed the requests of the drivers’ union. Get rid of the partial shields that let unhinged passengers reach through a gap to stab or punch drivers, and replace them with full shields.
A change that would help even more is uniformed security officers aboard buses. Winnipeg is the only major city in Canada to have lower transit ridership than it did 20 years ago, possibly because of a widespread perception that city buses are dangerous places.
Perhaps this trend could be reversed by staffing buses with highly-visible security officers whose presence would protect drivers and reassure passengers that help is at hand when trouble breaks out.
As well as maintaining order, the security officers could ensure passengers pay fares. As it currently stands, fares seem optional. Many passengers breeze aboard with no intention of paying. Drivers don’t confront them, which is understandable because drivers need all their attention focused on the considerable challenge of guiding their 12-metre long vehicles though urban traffic that is often tightly packed.
When everyone on the bus sees some people board without paying, when scofflaws are unchallenged, it seems as if Transit is poorly managed, which leads to drivers and passengers feeling unsafe. In some ways, it parallels Winnipeg’s spree of liquor-store thefts three years ago.
In 2019, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. told employees not to physically intervene with thieves, much like bus drivers today are told not to confront free-riders. Word quickly got around that Liquor Mart staff would not seek payment and the problem grew to ludicrous proportions, with thieves sauntering out of stores with arms full of unpaid liquor as staff watched.
What worked to restore order at Liquor Mart was heightened security that included uniformed security officers at targeted stores. Such a measure might also help on Winnipeg buses.
Yes, it would cost Transit more to staff buses with security officers, but overall revenue would be increased when the officers put an end to free rides — “Sorry sir, you don’t board until you pay the $3.10 fare.”
Additional funds could also come from the $539-million in Transit funding announced earlier this month. Plans are to spend this windfall on buying new buses and building a new Transit garage but, regrettably, none of it is devoted to safety.
Some of the new funding should be invested in boosting security. Potential passengers want assurance that city buses are a safe way to ride. That’s not too much to ask.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.