New signage won’t improve driver safety

It’s alarming to consider a workplace where employees are spat upon, doused with beverages and frequently attacked, both verbally and physically.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2021 (540 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s alarming to consider a workplace where employees are spat upon, doused with beverages and frequently attacked, both verbally and physically.

Welcome to the work world of Winnipeg Transit drivers. It’s been a typical year, with drivers assaulted 73 times in the first 10 months, with 54 of those assaults being physical.

The drivers have for many years alerted their employer, the City of Winnipeg, to such treacherous working conditions, but the response has been slow and ineffectual.

That’s the context in which Winnipeg Transit last week introduced new electronic displays on the buses’ electronic reader boards which, when activated by drivers, will read “Emergency Call 911” and “Do not board bus” when an emergency is taking place within the bus. In short, the signs don’t protect drivers, but protect people outside of the bus.

Transit suggests the new signs will help drivers by sending a message to Transit’s control centre, from which help can be dispatched. However, drivers already have communication devices to alert far-away authorities; the problem is that it takes too long for help to arrive. When a passenger grabs a bus steering wheel, as has occurred six times this year, or when drivers are physically assaulted, calling for help is after-the-fact feeble.

Transit deserves credit for recent changes which, while inadequate during emergencies, are intended to help before and after incidents. Drivers have received training to de-escalate dangerous situations, including dealing with intoxicated and/or belligerent riders. Also, an on-board video system has been expanded to help authorities identify and prosecute offenders.

Unfortunately, such measures are of little aid when drivers are assaulted by violent passengers who can easily reach around the partial shields that were recently installed, a poor alternative to the full bubble-like shields that would adequately protect drivers — the likes of which are required for licensed taxis.

It doesn’t have to be open season on bus drivers. Winnipeg should match other cities that have on-board security.

The city’s Transit advisory committee is studying the possibility of a bus security force and will make a recommendation to city council, said public works committee chairman Coun. Matt Allard.

The financial cost of providing a security presence aboard buses might initially seem prohibitive, but it could also increase Transit revenue by making buses safer and enticing to more passengers, and also curtailing the current practice of letting many people skip the fares.

Under the current protocol, drivers are told to avoid confrontation and generally don’t enforce the requirement to pay fares or wear masks. That results in some potential passengers avoiding Transit, feeling it’s unsafe to board buses with passengers who are permitted to ride without masks.

On-board Transit security would compel passengers to mask up and pay fares, while also providing a visible reminder that an authority figure is aboard to quell disturbances.

Such potential improvements to Transit’s bottom line would seem like small change, however, if the vision of new Premier Heather Stefanson’s government were to include restoring the province’s commitment to pay 50 per cent of the cost of running the city transit system, a deal that was unilaterally broken by former premier Brian Pallister three years ago.

The restoration of adequate provincial funding, combined with an effective security presence aboard buses, would be the double shot needed to improve Winnipeg Transit and afford its drivers long-needed protection.

The city’s 1,100 bus drivers should be free to focus on the road ahead as they guide their massive vehicles through city traffic. They shouldn’t be distracted by the possibility of getting attacked from behind. They need to know their employer has their backs.

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