No plans for safety upgrades after Saskatoon bus driver bear sprayed, spat on

The president of Saskatoon’s transit union is sounding the alarm on safety concerns after a bus driver was spat on and bear sprayed on Thursday night.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615 president Darcy Pederson is calling for operator shields and increased security on buses and at terminals.

“Sadly, violence against passengers and operators is so commonplace,” Pederson said in a post on the union’s website.

The bus driver was assaulted near 33rd Street and Avenue B North at about 8:20 p.m., Saskatoon police said in a news release.

A short time later, police found the two girls and three boys involved in the attack nearby. During the arrest, one of the girls bear sprayed an officer in the face.

Saskatoon Transit director Jim McDonald said the organization is working with police as there have been several instances of youth harassing bus drivers over the past few months.

So far this year, there have been three verbal or physical assaults on transit operators, McDonald said. Local bus drivers were assaulted 12 times last year and 19 times in 2018.

Some drivers have been screamed at and others have had coffee thrown on them, McDonald said.

He noted the number of assaults is relatively low, considering Saskatoon Transit provides 9.6 million rides every year.

“To have three so far this year … is not necessarily that significant. However, we do try and provide support to each of the operators after every time they’ve had an event like this happen.”

The transit operator assaulted on Thursday had a debrief with his supervisor and was directed to an employee assistance program. He has fully recovered following the attack, McDonald said.

Pederson said more needs to be done to protect drivers, but McDonald said Saskatoon Transit doesn’t plan on implementing new safety mechanisms any time soon.

He worked with the Edmonton Transit Service when it first started looking into operator shields, which will cost about $20 million for the city’s fleet of about 1,000 buses.

“The biggest conversation was around the operators feeling that they were going to lose the connectivity with … their customers,” he said.

“We’re willing to discuss that, but at this point in time, I don’t have anything in a capital plan to put driver shields in Saskatoon buses.”

All buses are equipped with security cameras and a discreet alarm button, and drivers are trained to safely remove themselves from confrontational interactions with passengers, McDonald said.

“Our overarching intent is for the operators to go back home to their families the same way they came to work in the morning,” he said.

The ATU highlighted the downtown terminal as another hazard due to a lack of security. There are cameras in the terminal, but McDonald said there aren’t any plans to hire security guards to patrol the area.

The union said Saskatoon could lead the way in making transit safety a priority, as violence against bus drivers is a concern across the country.

A Winnipeg bus driver was stabbed to death as he was finishing a shift in 2017. The following year, an Edmonton driver was stabbed repeatedly while parked at a transit terminal.

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