Protection on minds of Canada’s bus drivers as they meet in Kelowna

Drivers from across the country say they are facing more and more threats of violence from passengers on their buses.

Kelowna buses drivers are sounding the alarm about the violence they face behind the wheel.

Bus driver safety is on the minds, and the agenda, of hundreds of unionized transit bus operators from the across Canada gathering in Kelowna over the next few days.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Canada is holding its national conference here and on Wednesday many  its members joined a rally by local bus drivers at the Queensway bus loop downtown to raise awareness about the increasing dangers drivers face behind the wheels of their buses.

“It’s definitely getting worse,” Scott Lovell, president of ATU local 1722, the Kelowna ATU local, told the Capital News Thursday when asked if he feels the level of violence towards drivers here is increasing.

He said in addition to an escalating level of physical violence, the level and seriousness of the verbal threats bus drivers receive is also increasing. And that is also a concern.

After hearing from his colleagues from across Canada prior to Wednesday’s rally, he said local drivers are not alone.

But he said the ongoing problems fro drivers are often not reported by the media until something very serious happens, such as a death or serious injury or, as was the case here in March, when there were four transit workers assaulted in separate incidents the same day.

At the Kelowna rally, ATU Canada president Paul Thorpe said his members want to make it clear they want to be able to do their jobs without having to worry about being attacked.

Lovell said in every ATU local area drivers are being beaten, spat on and threatened every day. And that has to stop,

“We used to be considered members of the community, now (to some) were are seen as front-line tax collectors.”

He said he first noticed the rise in violence towards bus drivers during the 2008 economic downturn, and it has not stopped since.

A federal law to help judges hand down stiffer sentences for people found guilty of assaulting bus drivers has yet to have an impact, says the union. It was introduced last year.

To try and curb altercations between drivers and passengers, Lovell said he reluctantly has proposed shields be added on buses to separate drivers from passengers.

He also wants to see better training for drivers to help them recognize and deal with people who have mental health issues, are intoxicated or on drugs and for buses to have better focused GPS systems to help get drivers assistance more quickly when it is needed.

In the case of shields, which B.C. Transit has been working on for more than a year now, if cost is an issue, Lovell said the Kelowna regional transit system, could install them initially on only the 10 buses that are used here for nights shifts because that is when the majority of problems occur. The system has 106 buses in its fleet.

The Kelowna Regional Transit system is operated by a company, First Transit, under direction from the funding partners B.C. Transit and the area municipalities. It also get part of its funding from fares.

The ATU  local here represents 160 regular transit bus drivers, 30 Handi-Dart drivers and 31 maintenance and service workers.