OC Transpo to test out driver shields on city buses

OC Transpo will be installing protective barriers between drivers and passengers on a handful of buses as part of a pilot program later this year.

Union head calls plan 'a good step forward' as assaults continue to rise

OC Transpo will be testing protective barriers that will separate bus passengers from drivers as part of a pilot project later this year, according to a memo from general manager John Manconi. (Stu Mills/CBC)

OC Transpo will be installing protective barriers between passengers and drivers on a handful of city buses as part of a pilot project later this year.

The shields will be designed to "restrict customer access to the operator's area," according to a memo from general manager John Manconi that will be presented at Wednesday's transit commission meeting.

"Just over 10 years ago, OC Transpo conducted a preliminary review through installing a barrier on a bus, and has since continued monitoring developments in the transit industry relating to barriers," Manconi said in the memo.

"This is now an opportune time to undertake a detailed review of the operational impacts and an assessment of the potential benefits of these devices."

'A good step forward'

Protective shields have been long-sought by OC Transpo operators, many of whom are forced to deal with riders who are distracting, unruly and outright violent, said Clint Crabtree, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279.

"I think members want to be protected from assaults," Crabtree told CBC News on Friday.

"Anything you can do to prevent people from being assaulted while they are at work is a good step forward."

Crabtree said that there were more than 100 assaults committed against OC Transpo drivers in 2017. The annual assault rate, he added, has risen each of the past three years.

That's roughly in line with CBC's own analysis from 2016 of the violence local bus drivers face.

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

A Mississauga, Ont., transit drivers shows off a plastic barrier designed to protect bus drivers from assaults by passengers. (CBC News)

Fall launch date

Riders will first encounter the shields in the fall of 2018, Crabtree said.

They will be installed on between eight and 12 OC Transpo buses of all types — traditional, articulated, and double-decker — and won't be tied to any one particular route, he said.

The pilot project, he added, will run for roughly one year.

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

No one with either OC Transpo or the City of Ottawa wanted to be interviewed about the 2018 pilot project ahead of this week's transit commission meeting.

However, director of transit operations Troy Charter said in a statement that OC Transpo was "committed to providing all employees with a safe working environment."

Charter also provided statistics showing that the number of assaults against city bus drivers had risen from 47 in 2014 to 120 last year.

Coun. Stephen Blais, chair of the transit commission, also declined an interview.

'More awareness' about violence 

The popularity of driver barriers has been "steadily increasing" over the past five years, said Tom Klos, sales manager for Arow Global, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of protective shields.

"I think there's generally just more awareness about assaults that are happening to drivers all over North America," Klos said. "There's more willingness to provide some protection."

Ottawa is not the only Canadian city looking at using some sort of protective shield system.

In November 2017, Winnipeg Transit launched a pilot project to study the effectiveness of two different types of shields, nine months after a driver was stabbed to death. Toronto's TTC has also installed shields on a number of its vehicles.

It's not yet known what the OC Transpo shields will look like.

But one option could be something resembling the shields Arow Global has installed on some 3,000 buses across North America: a sliding barrier made of sturdy glass that protects drivers while allowing them to help passengers with fares and transfers.

As for the cost: Klos said retrofitting a single bus with a "custom-designed" shield tends to run between $4,000 and $6,000 US.