OC Transpo buses to be fitted with protective shields

OC Transpo is finally set to install barriers on its buses to protect drivers from abusive and sometimes violent passengers.

Drivers sucker-punched, spat on, burned by hot drinks, transit commissioners hear

The upcoming draft budget for 2021 is expected to include $6 million so that more than 700 OC Transpo buses can be retrofitted with Plexiglas shields to protect drivers. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

OC Transpo is finally set to install barriers on its buses to protect drivers from abusive and sometimes violent passengers.

Based on the results of a study launched in 2018, the city's transit commission agreed Wednesday to seek budget approval of up to $6 million to retrofit 746 buses with the Plexiglas shields.

Ottawa has been looking at the issue since the mid-2000s, during which time other cities have installed the shields to protect their drivers from assault or worse.

The City of Ottawa tested a couple of models of protective barriers for drivers during a 12-month pilot. (City of Ottawa)

"There's more of an appetite from our operators. It wasn't unanimous before," said transportation general manager John Manconi. "It's not necessarily the number of assaults, but the severity and types of assault."

The shield designs have become less obtrusive, easier to install and less expensive, he said. A relevant benefit now is that they offer extra protection against the spread of COVID-19.

Driver sucker-punched

Manconi described one incident that occurred in the past week in which a rider got on but refused to pay. The driver was polite, but alerted the agency's control centre, as he was trained to do.

"The customer got up and sucker-punched the operator ... on the side of his head and hit his eye. That operator is off," Manconi told the commission.

Other drivers, especially women, have been spat on and burned by hot drinks, Manconi said. 

"Many of our operators do not want to return," he said. "They're psychologically stressed from those assaults, because they come out of nowhere."

Cost concerns

Commissioners agreed that drivers must have a safe workplace and be protected, but a few also questioned the price of the barriers given the unprecedented financial constraints brought on by COVID-19.

Manconi had noted during the same meeting that OC Transpo is "bleeding" up to $4 million per week at the fare box.

John Manconi, general manager of transportation services, said the assaults on bus drivers are becoming more severe. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Citizen commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert asked how the permanent barriers could cost approximately $8,000 each while the temporary soft vinyl barriers installed in June to limit the spread of COVID-19 cost only $300 each. Those temporary barriers would be replaced by the permanent ones, except in buses set to retire shortly.

"I do have an issue with the cost. I think it's very expensive," agreed Coun. Riley Brockington, who urged staff to find "the best quote possible."

The barriers require design work and must meet transportation ministry regulations, Manconi explained. He said OC Transpo would hope to get a lower cost per unit.

Transit commission voted 9 to 2 in favour of having the permanent barriers included in the 2021 capital budget, with commissioners Brockington and Wright-Gilbert voting against. 

The driver shields will be a $6-million line item in Ottawa's draft 2021 budget, to be tabled Nov. 4.

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