Spat on, slapped, sucker punched: OC Transpo drivers attacked every 4 days

OC Transpo drivers were punched, spit on or threatened 85 times in 2015, according to documents obtained by CBC News. Now the drivers and their union are calling for more protection from unruly — and increasingly violent — passengers.

'No one deserves to come to work and be assaulted'

OC Transpo driver Theresa Lewis says she regularly faces insults from bus passengers while on the job. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

"Kill the bus driver!" 

That's what the man yelled at Theresa Lewis after calling her a "witch" and a "devil worshiper." 

For Lewis, an OC Transpo driver for nearly a decade, threats and insults from unhinged passengers have become a disturbingly common occurrence, an unnerving workplace hazard she fears won't stop until tragedy strikes.

"Lots of people call me A-hole, the B-word and the C-word and the F-ing C-word," Lewis said. "Basically it's unsafe. [OC Transpo is] going to wait until somebody gets killed."

In 2015 OC Transpo drivers were assaulted, spat on or threatened 85 times — about once every four days — according to documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request.

The violence has become so frequent that the union representing Ottawa's bus drivers is pushing for more enforcement, while also discussing the installation of Plexiglas barriers and, eventually, driver-side doors to allow drivers to escape dangerous situations.

"No one deserves to come to work and be assaulted," said Clint Crabtree, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279. "If a bus driver is being assaulted while the bus is in motion, everybody on that bus's safety becomes in jeopardy."

Punched, slapped, groped, spat on

The attackers are men and women of all ages, their reasons for lashing out as varied as their outbursts are unpredictable. 

One driver landed in hospital after being punched and spat on by a passenger he'd tried to wake near St. Laurent Boulevard. Another passenger groped a bus operator's genitals and nibbled on his arm as she got off the bus at Rideau Street. In another incident, an elderly woman slapped a bus driver after he missed her stop near Heron Road. 

These are just three of 29 physical assaults against OC Transpo drivers reported in 2015, detailed in transit enforcement's summary reports and obtained by CBC News. Physical attacks on drivers made up 34 per cent of all assaults recorded last year.

If a bus driver is being assaulted while the bus is in motion, everybody on that bus's safety becomes in jeopardy.- Clint Crabtree , president of ATU Local 279

Thirty-three incidents involved verbal threats hurled at drivers, including: 

  • A man threatened to slash the throat of a driver on Ogilvie Road.
  • A passenger pulled a knife on a driver at Hurdman Station and was arrested.
  • A passenger angry over the temperature on the bus at Laurier Station muttered to a driver, "You deserve a big punch in the mouth." 

Snowballs, beer and coffee were among the things lobbed at bus drivers as they sat behind the wheel. In one case, a driver reported someone aimed a handgun at the bus from a passing car at Bank Street and Walkley Road.

In another incident, a driver claimed a bus was shot at near Hillcrest High School, shattering a window. The incident was later deemed mischief. 

See a map of reported incidents here.

Map legend

The red bus symbol represents a bus driver assaulted, the bus driver symbol represents a bus rider threatened, and the blug flag represents a bus driver being spat on.

Spitting incidents becoming more frequent

Passengers spat on bus drivers twice a month on average over everything from late buses, problems with their Presto cards and the driver braking too hard, according to documents. 

"The spitting seems to be happening more frequently," said Crabtree of the 23 incidents in 2015. "Nobody should be spat on at work." 

A transit enforcement official speaks with an OC Transpo driver. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)
In one case, a driver underwent six months of medical testing and took the grievance to court after discovering the person who spat on him was HIV positive, said Crabtree. 

The driver's union wants to see more of OC Transpo's special constables getting out of their own vehicles and boarding buses in an effort to cool passengers' tempers and cut down on the frequency of the assaults. 

Crabtree said he asked for more enforcement a year ago and initially got action, but has since watched the number of special constables aboard buses dwindle. 

OC Transpo's enforcement chief says there are plans to beef up the foot patrol program, which runs from May through October. 

"I can't give you a solid number right now," said Jim Babe, OC Transpo's Chief special constable. "We're still looking at all the numbers."

Babe added buses are equipped with an emergency alarm, and public consultation is underway on a plan to triple the number of security cameras in time for the completion of the first phase of the city's light rail system.

Ottawa's former transit head and union leaders across Canada pushed the federal government for years for stiffer sentences for assaults on transit workers.

Bill S-221 amending the Criminal Code received Royal Assent in 2015. The law requires judges to consider an assault on a transit driver an aggravating circumstance and could lead to harsher sentences.

Plexiglas shields costly, problematic

Some bus drivers are talking with their union about installing Plexiglas shields to protect them from violent passengers, as transit authorities in other Canadian cities have already done. 

The ATU's international president has already urged all transit authorities to install the shields.

"The challenge would be the cost," said Crabtree. "But you can't put a cost on safety."

OC Transpo looked at the possibility of installing the shields as early as 2010, but decided against them after discovering it would have cost $2.6 million — plus installation — to retrofit the entire fleet.

"The information that we have is that there are varying degrees of success with shields," said OC Transpo general manager John Manconi. 

People are taking more chances and they don't give a hoot [if they] beat the crap out of you.- Theresa Lewis, OC Transpo driver

"Other agencies have had other problems with the shields [such as] operators not using them and being assaulted."

An early model of shield left spaces that allowed passengers to throw firecrackers into the driver's compartment, Manconi said.

The Toronto Transit Commission began retrofitting its entire fleet in 2012 at a cost of $2,500 per vehicle. The shields are not mandatory and the city isn't keeping statistics to see if the equipment is preventing injuries, according to the TTC.

Manconi doesn't believe shields are a cure-all. Instead, OC Transpo is relying on surveillance cameras and training programs for both drivers and passengers, he said.

But OC Transpo bus driver Theresa Lewis believes if shields can offer her any amount of protection from injury — or worse — they're worth a try.

"The city's getting bigger, it's getting more dangerous," said Lewis. "People are taking more chances and they don't give a hoot [if they] beat the crap out of you."

A Mississauga transit driver behind a barrier designed to protect bus operators violent passengers. (CBC News)