November 12, 2018

Winnipeg
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Despite concerns, transit still a safe option

Editorial

Words seldom heard in Winnipeg: “I choose to ride city buses because it’s a safe way to travel.”

Winnipeg Police Service released on Tuesday data for all transit-related violent events against drivers and passengers, including passengers at bus stops, for the past six years. The number of annual violent assaults typically ranges from 61 to 85. An aberration was seen in 2017, when police recorded 126 incidents, but the statistics for 2018 show a decline from the previous year, with 62 as of the end of August.

Before people read that statistic and believe city buses are vessels of violence, it’s important to keep perspective. Winnipeg Transit reports about 45 million rides a year; that means the weekly average of one or two assaults happens in the weekly context of around 865,000 rides.

The uncelebrated reality is that, when compared to alternatives such as driving personal vehicles, bus passengers are far less likely to be victims of crime or victims of crashes. Unfortunately, this fact can be overshadowed by incidents that go viral and are reported by media. The latest example was last Sunday, when a passenger wielding a knife yelled racial slurs at another passenger and allegedly attacked two Good Samaritans who tried to intervene.

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Words seldom heard in Winnipeg: "I choose to ride city buses because it’s a safe way to travel."

Winnipeg Police Service released on Tuesday data for all transit-related violent events against drivers and passengers, including passengers at bus stops, for the past six years. The number of annual violent assaults typically ranges from 61 to 85. An aberration was seen in 2017, when police recorded 126 incidents, but the statistics for 2018 show a decline from the previous year, with 62 as of the end of August.

Before people read that statistic and believe city buses are vessels of violence, it’s important to keep perspective. Winnipeg Transit reports about 45 million rides a year; that means the weekly average of one or two assaults happens in the weekly context of around 865,000 rides.

The uncelebrated reality is that, when compared to alternatives such as driving personal vehicles, bus passengers are far less likely to be victims of crime or victims of crashes. Unfortunately, this fact can be overshadowed by incidents that go viral and are reported by media. The latest example was last Sunday, when a passenger wielding a knife yelled racial slurs at another passenger and allegedly attacked two Good Samaritans who tried to intervene.

Fear of riding a city bus is as unrealistic as fear of flying

Fear of riding a city bus is as unrealistic as fear of flying. Indisputable statistics show flying in a jet is safer than driving a vehicle on a highway, but such data do little to quell the jitters of nervous flyers who white-knuckle their seat’s armrests during takeoff.

How safe is a bus? An exhaustive study of safety and mass transit was published in the U.S. Journal of Public Transportation. It concluded people on a bus are about 60 times safer than people riding in an automobile.

"Public transportation is, overall, a relatively safe (low crash risk) and secure (low crime risk) transport mode," concluded the study’s author, Todd Litman, in a 2018 report titled Safer Than You Think! Revising the Transit Safety Narrative.

He found transit riders and automobile drivers encounter different types of crimes. The low rate of crime experienced by transit riders involves mainly property theft and physical assault. Vehicle drivers experience far more crime, including road rage, auto theft, auto vandalism, vehicular assault and personal assaults while outside their vehicles in parking lots and parking garages.

The study’s conclusion — riding the bus is much safer than driving personal vehicles — should relieve bus passengers. But unfortunately, it does little to quell the personal safety concerns of Winnipeg bus drivers.

Of all the people aboard a bus, drivers are the most likely targets of violence. These uniformed authority figures can be perceived as provocative by troublemaking riders who can be intoxicated or mentally unstable. According the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, some drivers have been hit, threatened and spat upon.

Drivers already have their hands full in steering a 12-metre-long bus through crowded urban traffic; the last thing they need is to be distracted by ruffians

Drivers already have their hands full in steering a 12-metre-long bus through crowded urban traffic; the last thing they need is to be distracted by ruffians.

Following the February 2017 death of driver Irvine (Jubal) Fraser, who was stabbed to death by a passenger, the city has beefed up security in several ways, including hiring nine additional inspectors and introducing a pilot project that protects drivers with shields.

The next step is to decide whether the entire city fleet of more than 600 buses should be outfitted with such shields. The city would be wise to consult, and heed, the drivers on this matter. If the drivers want shields, provide them.

The goal should be to make travelling on buses as safe for drivers as it already is for passengers.

The next step can be for the city to publicly promote buses as the safe way to ride. Such a promotion can enhance the image of Winnipeg Transit and perhaps increase ridership.

Safety is good for business. It shouldn’t be a secret.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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