With the recent violent death of a Winnipeg bus driver on Valentine’s Day, there are calls for changes in policies pertaining to bus driver protection.1 Although federal legislation, known as Tom Bregg’s Law, was been enacted in 2015 to try to address the issue, bus driver and rider safety continues to be threatened. Ideas such as having protective shields around drivers, police officers or cadets on buses, and bus driver self-defence training could improve safety.
In 2015, Alberta Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber introduced legislation, also known as “Tom Bregg’s Law”, to increase the penalty for assaulting a public transit driver.2 The legislation was named after Edmonton bus driver Tom Bregg, who was violently attacked, resulting in brain damage and the loss of sight in one of his eyes.3 Rathgeber did not successfully pass the legislation in the House of Commons, but it was later introduced by Senator Bob Runciman, passed by the Senate as Bill S-22, and came into force in February 2015.4
The legislation amends s. 269.01 of the Criminal Code by making it an aggravating circumstance to commit assault against a public transit operator.5 By making the assault an aggravating circumstance, it would become more likely for an individual who is convicted of assaulting a public transit operator to receive a more significant sentence compared to regular assault.
One concern about the ability of Tom Bregg’s Law to address violence towards bus drivers is that it is a reactionary measure. It is only used after someone has assaulted a bus driver. While it may be considered a deterrent for future assaults, there needs to be awareness of the law and its consequences. People who attack bus drivers likely do not care about the legal consequences of their actions. Bus driver assaults do not seem to often be premeditated. In Tom Bregg’s case, he was attacked by an intoxicated person over a bus fare argument.6 The assailant’s intoxication may have been a factor in the decision to attack Bregg, and legal consequences would not be relevant. While Tom Bregg’s Law serves a role in addressing bus driver attacks in a reactionary way, more focus should be placed on the issue of why people are attacking them in the first place. The law can be strengthened by proactive measures that tackle this issue.
There has been discussion of the idea of having protective shields for bus drivers. It was contemplated whether to install them on Winnipeg city buses, but there was not enough support from the bus drivers’ union.7 Edmonton, Toronto, Winnipeg, and several cities in the United States have tested out driver shields, yet they have not become a norm in many cities.8 Protective shields or screens can also be supplemented with panic or alert buttons that bus drivers can use to alert authorities that they are in trouble, yet they have not been implemented. There are possible downsides to protective screens, including that they can produce glare and a loud rattling noise, which is distracting for drivers.9 Additionally, they may reduce the driver-passenger experience on buses, and the shields cannot fully enclose the space that the driver is in. This can expose them to being cornered in an attack and unable to leave the bus.
Another way to increase safety on buses is to have police officers or cadets patrol on them so that they can intervene if riders are acting violently. This would add another layer of supervision to the audio and visual cameras that are already on many buses, including those in Winnipeg. The presence of cadets or the police could act as a significant deterrent to illegal behaviour. The challenge with this is that it would be expensive to implement. Additional police officers or cadets would have to be hired to increase patrolling on buses to prevent the presence of police and cadets from decreasing in other areas. Winnipeg has 585 public transit buses, making it very difficult to ensure that they would be adequately patrolled without increasing spending.10 Since 2011, threats or assaults with a weapon have increased on Winnipeg transit buses. Increased police or cadet presence on buses may be an effective way to reduce the threats or assaults.11
If attacks on bus drivers are inevitable, they should be prepared in the best manner possible to deal with hostile and aggressive passengers. Self-defence training and training on how to de-escalate aggressive situations may be worthwhile. It is possible that many attacks on buses are due to conflict that can be de-escalated, and bus drivers may be able to play a role in decreasing this conflict. In the event that bus drivers cannot use communication to prevent an unsafe situation, they could use self-defence to protect themselves and other passengers from physical harm. While this type of training would likely be expensive, it would allow for proactive measures to be used to prevent the escalation of dangerous and aggressive situations.
Overall, bus driver safety continues to be a significant issue. Tom Bregg’s Law is a step in the right direction towards the attempt to decrease acts of violence against bus drivers, but is a reactionary law that does not stop the problem at its source or before it escalates. Some other options that could complement the law are installing drivers protective shields, having police officers and/or cadets patrol on buses, and providing self-defence training and training on dealing with hostile passengers. The future safety of bus drivers and the public depends on more being to be done to prevent violence on buses.
1 Alexandra Paul, “Bus Drivers Assaulted, Threatened”, Winnipeg Free Press (11 March 2017), online: <http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/bus-drivers-assaulted-threatened-415955354.html>.
2 CBC News, “Tom Bregg’s Law Issues Stiffer Penalties for Transit Attacks”, CBC News (18 February 2015), online: <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/tom-bregg-s-law-issues-stiffer-penalties-for-transit-attacks-1.2962295>.
4 Bill S-221, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (assaults against public transit operators), 2nd Sess, 41st Parl, 2015.
5 Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s. 269.01.
6 Supra note 2.
7 Bryce Hoye, “Are Shields the Answer? Fatal Stabbing has Bus Drivers Calling for Safety Barriers”, CBC News (18 February 2017), online: <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/bus-driver-safety-barriers-shields-winnipeg-1.3985473>.
10 City of Winnipeg, “Transit Facts”, online: <http://winnipegtransit.com/en/about-us/interestingtransitfacts/>.
11 Supra note 7.