'The bus was … hijacked': Woman grabs steering wheel of moving bus, threatens driver with syringe
Woman threw food at driver and insisted he go faster, police say
An early morning bus ride in Winnipeg turned frightening when a woman threatened the driver with a syringe and grabbed the steering wheel while the bus was moving.
"The bus was actually kind of hijacked," said Romeo Ignacio, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.
The woman, 30, boarded the bus at Osborne Street and Morley Avenue around 12:45 a.m. and began agitating other passengers before making her way toward the driver, police said in a news release.
"This female was very intoxicated and her behaviour was belligerent," said a police spokesperson, who was not sure how many passengers were on the bus at the time.
Once the woman was close to the driver, she threw food at him and insisted he drive faster, the police news release said.
As the bus continued along its route, the woman then pulled out a syringe, removed the cap and pointed it at the driver, threatening to stab him.
She then grabbed the steering wheel, causing the bus to swerve back and forth on the road, police said.
Officers, who had been notified, caught up to the bus at Main Street and Pioneer Avenue downtown, and arrested the woman, who is facing charges of assault with a weapon, uttering threats and mischief.
No one was physically injured during the incident, police said.
"So it turned out OK, given the situation," Ignacio said, while adding the operator was emotionally shaken and might need some time off.
Praise for driver
The bus operator deserves a lot of credit for managing what could have been a much more violent situation, Ignacio said.
When the woman threatened him, he was able to alert supervisors at the Winnipeg Transit control centre by sending an alarm and allowing them to listen in to what was happening.
As the driver spoke to the woman, trying to pacify her, he did so in a way that let supervisors know what she was doing and where the bus was headed.
He repeated the place the woman wanted to be taken so that police knew where to wait.
"He had presence of mind to de-escalate the situation," said Ignacio, who believes the man has been a driver for about seven or eight years. "If I could say that this operator deserves some kind of award, he's got an award for nerves of steel."
Wheel-grabbing incidents on rise
Monday's incident adds support to the ATU's push for shields that cover more area around transit drivers, Ignacio said.
This was the fourth time this year — all since February — that a passenger has grabbed the steering wheel of a bus, he said.
"Unfortunately it happens more than people see, or the public knows," he said.
On Feb. 23, an operator lost control of the bus after a passenger grabbed the wheel during rush hour, around 5:40 p.m. on Pembina Highway.
The bus ended up crashing onto the median at Pembina and Crane Avenue, but no one was hurt.
The union has been advocating for improvements to the shields, which were installed in the bus fleet in 2019 and 2020.
They were installed after driver Irvine Jubal Fraser, 58, was stabbed multiple times and died in February 2017. A jury found Brian Kyle Thomas guilty in January 2019 of second-degree murder.
At the time, there were two design options: a fixed one and a sliding one, Ignacio said. The ATU chose the latter.
The union felt a sliding one gave drivers a quick escape from their compartment if someone violent was on the bus. It was also seen as convenient for drivers to open — when the bus was empty — if the compartment became too hot.
The sliding shield, though, is shorter and doesn't go beyond the fare box, leaving a gap where people can lean on the box and reach into the compartment.
"It does minimize the severity of the assaults [drivers faced before shields] but we're finding out now that people are resorting to actually grabbing the wheel," Ignacio said.
The union says the sliding portion of the shield could be retrofitted to add another 20 to 30 cm without much cost. The hardware, framing and brackets would remain as they are.
"It's just the actual glass component that needs to be extended, but so far there's no commitment from the city," Ignacio said.
Pilot project to increase safety
The same day the police released information about Monday's attack, the City of Winnipeg and Winnipeg Transit announced a pilot project to increase safety on buses.
The project, which has already begun, has bus camera feeds being live streamed into the TCC in emergency situations.
Supervisors can immediately tap into the live-camera feed to assess the situation and dispatch emergency services, according to the city's release.
The pilot project, involving 50 buses, will take place over a six-month period. It makes use of existing camera technology wireless services on buses, and didn't require the installation of any additional equipment, according to the release.
"They couldn't have picked a better time to actually have that media release go out," Ignacio said, adding the bus involved in Monday's incident was not one of the 50 involved in the pilot project.