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This article was published 23/7/2018 (451 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ask any security professional this question: would you turn your back on people who are blatantly hostile and may be intoxicated or unstable? Their immediate answer would be: never.
Yet, Winnipeg transit drivers spend their entire shifts with backs turned to potential danger. No wonder so many are stressed.
Recent data from the Workers Compensation Board show the number of Winnipeg bus drivers suffering from traumatic stress has increased dramatically. Fourteen drivers were unable to work in 2017 because of traumatic stress, compared with just two in 2016.
A spokesman for the drivers union says the stress level is growing because more drivers are being threatened and assaulted. Assaults include punching and spitting; threats tend to be verbal, but can also include silent intimidation, such as the display of a knife and hand gestures that replicate a gun pointed at the driver or a finger slashing a throat.
Although incidents of hostility toward drivers are dismaying, it’s important not to overstate the number of aggressive passengers with violent intent. The vast majority of passengers only want safe, reliable transportation; if they think of the drivers at all, it’s to hope they drive with skill and caution.
But a big source of stress for drivers is the certainty that the thousands of people transported daily will include a few troublemakers. And the next threat could be as close as the upcoming bus stop.
A common source of anxiety involves would-be passengers who have no intention of paying the fare. For the sake of saving $2.95, they board the bus and refuse the driver’s reminder to pay. The drivers are trained to dodge such conflict and let the louts ride for free, but that’s a tense situation for drivers who must submit to belligerence in front of other passengers, who witness the capitulation and might feel it’s unfair that antagonism is rewarded with a free trip.
There’s a common misconception that drivers should keep order aboard buses. Unfairly, some passengers want drivers to intervene when unruly riders bother other passengers, when obstinate aisle-standers refuse to move to the back of a crowded bus, or when a selfish passenger claims a second empty seat for their backpack.
But such everyday scenarios can’t be the concern of drivers, who are advised by their managers not to leave their seats to attend to such complaints from passengers. The rationale is partly that Winnipeg Transit could be liable if, for instance, a driver intervenes in a fist fight and is accused of injuring a combatant. But the admonition that drivers ignore the action behind their backs is also practical: guiding huge vehicles through thick traffic requires 100 per cent attention on the road ahead.
The slaying in 2017 of bus driver Irvine Jubal Fraser, who was attacked when he tried to rouse a sleeping passenger at the end of a route, seemed to be a wake-up call for the city’s transit managers. They have introduced a new safety training program and a pilot project to test bus-driver safety shields.
Such measures are welcome, but could be reinforced by more public appreciation of drivers. The atmosphere aboard buses and the mood of drivers could be boosted considerably by small displays of consideration from passengers. It can be as simple as smiling at the drivers when boarding, and shouting "Thanks for the ride!" from the rear door when exiting.
Such expressions of appreciation remind drivers most passengers are not oafs. We appreciate their job is stressful. And most of us have their backs.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
Updated on Monday, July 23, 2018 at 6:52 AM CDT: Adds photo