Kelowna regional transit, local bus drivers and city officials are all welcoming an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada that they say will help protect transit operators from attacks while on the job.
The amendment, which will take away the ability of judges to give light sentences to anyone convicted of assaulting a transit operator— a move Les Milton, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1722, said is long overdue—went into effect Wednesday.
“We’ve been working on this for 10 years,” said Milton. “It’s long overdue.
Milton said in the past, some people convicted of assaulting transit operators have received what he called a “light slap on the wrist.”
“They have been back on the bus before the bus driver,” he said.
The move to change the law comes two years after three serious incidents in the Central Okanagan involving attacks on bus drivers.
In one, a driver was attacked with a syringe by a rider, in another a driver was attacked by an irate passenger while driving his bus on the Westside and suffered a broken jaw. The man wanted to get off the bus and was not willing to wait until the next stop.
Despite suffering the injury to his face, the bus driver managed to maintain control of the bus and bring it to a safe stop.
In the third incident a driver was attacked outside his bus at a transit exchange.
Ron Westlake, director of regional services for Kelowna, and the vice-chairman of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, which spearheaded the change to the criminal code, said hopefully the amendment will act as a deterrent to anyone intent on harming a transit operator or taxi driver anywhere in Canada.
He noted the push for the change to the federal Criminal Code,which was proposed as a private members bill by Sen. Bob Runcimen and had the backing of all parties in the House of Commons, also had the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
In the Lower Mainland, the issue of transit operator safety has been in the news a lot because of the high number of attacks on Translink operators.
Bill Harding, general manager of First Transit Kelowna, the company that operates the Kelowna Regional Transit system, said his company was very pleased with Criminal Code change.
He said while training is provided to drivers here to avoid altercations with upset riders and other members of the public, something needed to be done to serve as a deterrent.
He noted it is not just the driver whose safety is in danger as a result of such assaults, passengers on the bus could also be affected, especially if the bus is moving at the time incident as it was during the Westside assault in 2013. The safety of people outside the bus could also be affected if the driver loses control of his bus.
“We are really happy to see this legislation,” said Harding.
On the street, Kelonwa-area bus drivers are also welcoming the federal move.
John Klassen has been driving a bus in Kelowna for eight years and said he would welcome any measures to improve safety for drivers.
While he noted the majority of passengers are respectful, sometimes riders can be threatening, especially if the person is impaired.
“If people have been drinking or are on drugs, it can be a problem,” said Klassen. “I had one guy last week I thought he was going to punch me. And then I have to go pick the same guy up the next day. It’s a grey area. We’re not supposed to kick them off but sometimes they don’t have the money to pay the fare.”
Meanwhile, while B.C. Transit said last fall it was planning to install surveillance cameras on Kelowna-area buses, Milton said drivers here are still waiting.
He said no time frame has been given for the promised installation.
Last fall, a passenger was seriously injured after being attacked on a local bus and at the time, a B.C. Transit spokeswoman told the Capital News that the plan to install cameras on buses was already in place and a request for proposals had been issued.