Police target distracted drivers from seat of a Winnipeg Transit bus

Police officers are riding select Winnipeg buses but their focus is more on targeting distracted drivers than being a safety presence.

'We're using some unconventional means to locate and to speak with distracted drivers,' say Winnipeg police

Winnipeg police were on city buses for four hours on Thursday as part of a pilot project to catch distracted drivers. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Police officers rode select Winnipeg Transit buses on Thursday but not to combat growing concerns about violence on some routes.

Rather, the officers from the traffic division used their tall perch to scout for distracted drivers.

"We're using some unconventional means to locate and to speak with distracted drivers, in some cases issuing offence notices," said Staff Sgt. Sean Pollock.

"But our main purpose for the day is to educate the drivers on Winnipeg's roadways that distracted driving is now basically on parity with impaired driving, as far as danger." 

Pollock said Thursday's initiative was a pilot project and he wouldn't say how many more times it might be conducted.

"We'll examine it but my hope is that it is something that is ongoing," he said.

More than 7,800 tickets were issued in Winnipeg for distracted driving in 2017. So far in 2018, that number is around 1,000, which Pollock says is encouraging.

"On this pace we're looking at almost a 50 per cent reduction," he said, noting only a handful of tickets were issued on Thursday.
Staff Sgt. Sean Pollock said he hopes the practice will continue but wouldn't say when it might start, or how many officers might be assigned to Transit buses. (CBC)

The police service had earlier issued a news release saying the "safety and security of passengers and operators will be a focus of this effort," but Pollock made it clear that road safety and catching drivers using hand-held electronic devices was the priority.

If anyone was spotted with a device, the officer would radio ahead and describe the vehicle to a colleague on the street. The vehicle would then be pulled over and ticketed but also given "an educational component" about the dangers of distracted driving, Pollock said.

The city's transit union has been calling for enhanced security on its buses for many years. The issue came to a head in February 2017 when driver Jubal Fraser was stabbed to death after he roused a sleeping passenger at the end of his route on the University of Manitoba campus.

Randy Tonnellier, Winnipeg Transit's acting manager of operations, said he was pleased with Thursday's operation, noting the presence of an officer on the bus will naturally help increase safety.

Asked if he wants police on buses all the time, he said "the more security presence we have, the better."

He noted Thursday's initiative was separate from anything to do with improving security, adding the Transit Advisory Committee "is actively working on that issue right now as well — an added security presence and what that might look like."

Lucille Gregory, who rides the bus every day, said she likes the idea. 

"I think it's good because I see a lot of people who, they're sitting there texting while driving and I'm yelling at them like, 'Put down your phone! Come on! Like you can get somewhere in a little while. If it's that important, pull over.' So I think the idea of the police being on the buses looking down, that's great."

Gregory also likes the idea that uniformed police officers are on the bus, keeping passengers safe.