Are shields the answer? Fatal stabbing has bus drivers calling for safety barriers
Drivers feel unsafe after Winnipeg Transit operator Irvine Fraser killed on job
Brian Lennox once had a gun pointed into his eye socket while driving a Winnipeg bus. Another time on the job, two teenagers threw bags of urine and feces at him.
"I started to say 'Hi' to them and the next thing I knew I was swallowing vomit, feces, urine," said Lennox, who is now retired and living with PTSD after three decades of driving for Winnipeg Transit. "It soiled the bus from the inside of the windshield back to the third seat. Every surface was covered with the stuff."
After their colleague was killed on the job earlier this week, Lennox and many other Winnipeg bus drivers are renewing calls for barriers to be installed in their vehicles to help protect them from attacks.
Irvine Fraser, 58, was stabbed to death in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Police say he asked the lone rider on his bus to leave after pulling up to his last stop.
Though a clear, plastic shield separating bus drivers and passengers may not have protected Fraser, his death — the first such homicide of a transit driver in Winnipeg's history — has revived a conversation about the violence transit workers routinely face.
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About 2,000 attacks are reported against bus drivers every year across Canada, according to the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA).
"Most of these assaults are described as minor assaults, but there's no such thing as a minor assault," said CUTA president Patrick Leclerc.
"Imagine you're in a driver's seat with a seatbelt, there's no escape possible, you've got a window on your left," said Leclerc. "You're very vulnerable."
On Friday, hundreds of Winnipeg transit workers rallied, calling on all levels of government to make buses safer for drivers and passengers.
Airline pilots and train operators sit in protected areas, while bus operators "lie in wait of these heinous attacks out in the open," said Amalgamated Transit Union Canada president Paul Thorp at the rally.
Lennox believes drivers on transit buses should have fully enclosed compartments along with a door on the driver's side to be used in the case of emergencies.
"I'm not talking about [these] token shields that you can reach around that are not ballistic glass," said Lennox.
On the day of Fraser's death, his colleague Nelson Giesbrecht, who has served 19 years as a Winnipeg Transit driver, called for buses to be outfitted with full shields.
"I'm to the point of, 'put me in a cage.' I don't want to see money, I don't want to see nothing," said Giesbrecht.
Use across the country
Their concerns echo recommendations from a 2016 report by the Amalgamated Transit Union.
The union, which represents public transit drivers in Canada, recommended municipalities consider putting in bulletproof shields, doors or windows on the left side of the bus for the operator to use as an escape, and some form of "panic button" drivers can hit to alert local authorities in the event of an assault or other emergency.
Winnipeg Transit drivers and members of the local chapter of ATU mulled the idea of whether to install shields a few years ago.
There wasn't enough support and the idea was eventually shot down by the union, Winnipeg Coun. Brian Mayes said.
"If I were a driver, I'd probably be talking about shields," Mayes said Tuesday. "But it's not like we missed it before. We have talked about it before and there wasn't support from the union. Maybe that will change."
Edmonton Transit Service and the Toronto Transit Commission have tested shields to varying degrees, as has Winnipeg Transit, CUTA's Leclerc said. Last fall some Metro Vancouver buses were outfitted with partial and full Plexiglass screens, which run from the ceiling to the floor.
Several jurisdictions in North America and Europe have either piloted or installed shields throughout public transit buses.
But little is known about how effective shields are at reducing violence toward drivers.
Unpopular among drivers
Early adopters of shield pilot programs in the U.S. included Miami and San Francisco, according to a 2011 study by the U.S.-based Transportation Research Board.
Miami-Dade Transit, the transit authority in Miami, found the barriers were "very effective" in protecting its bus drivers, despite only offering partial coverage.
But San Francisco's transit authority canned its experiment a few years after installing plastic shields on 10 per cent of its 800 buses in the late 1990s because it was so unpopular with drivers.
Some of its operators complained about the shield's glare or loud rattle, while others reported feeling claustrophobic and cut off from passengers.
The Toronto Transit Commission equipped buses with plastic shields following recommendations from a task force that looked at assaults on operators.
One of the main reasons for bringing in the partial shields was to prevent people from spitting on drivers, said TTC spokesman Stuart Green.
Spitting is one of the most common types of assaults on drivers, along with verbal threats, according to a 2011 study of 66 North American transit authorities conducted by U.S.-based Transportation Research Board.
Tom Klos, product manager with driver protection system manufacturer Arow Global, said he finds bus drivers tend to prefer shields on slider systems that can be adjusted over those that are fixed in place.
But design is often constrained because many buses are built in a way that makes it difficult to install full shields in them after the fact.
"At best, what you can do is put a very good deterrent in place to prevent a blindside attack or unexpected attack. You can at least have an opportunity to defend yourself," Klos said.
While safety shields are "very necessary part of the solution for protecting drivers," they are not the only solution, said Klos.
De-escalation of situations encountered by drivers and tough laws to convict those who attack them are also important, said Klos.
Two years ago, a federal law passed allowing stiffer penalties for attacks against transit drivers after an Edmonton transit driver was brutally beaten following an argument over bus fare.
The Transportation Research Board found that disputes over fares and intoxicated passengers are the top contributing factors in assaults against transit drivers.
Winnipeg Transit bus drivers are given one day of training on how to resolve conflicts and avoid assaults.
In Toronto, the transit authority's policy now states that drivers aren't supposed to engage in fare disputes, TTC spokesman Green said.
"If someone gets on and is being difficult about paying a fare, we ask our operators not to get involved," Green said. "There are other ways to deal with that issue."
'And yet here we are'
Another factor is that shields also don't come cheap.
It remains to be seen whether Winnipeg Transit drivers will push their union, Winnipeg police and city officials in the coming days and weeks, sustaining that call for bus shields.
For Lennox, the PTSD, regular nightmares and anxiety attacks he still struggles with daily make him wonder what life after retirement could've been like if shields had been installed during his time on the job.
"I like being friendly, I like helping people. I think you'd find that most of your transit drivers are people like that … We're in a service job because we like serving people," said Lennox. "And yet here we are, and I have to watch my back everywhere I go."
With files from Erin Brohman, Marcy Markusa, Jillian Taylor and Nelly Gonzalez