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Rise in Bus Driver Assaults Triggers New Protection Laws

More than 30 states have laws classifying assault on transit operators as a special category of misdemeanor. Incidents are increasing, and transit workers and their unions are pushing for action at all levels of government.

Chicago Transit Authority workers march in the Loop to bring awareness to assaults on bus and rail operators
A CTA Orange Line train passes above as Chicago Transit Authority workers march in the Loop to bring awareness to assaults on bus and rail operators on Dec. 11, 2021. CTA employees and labor union representatives called for increased policing on bus and rail systems, in addition to stronger prosecution of offenders. (John J. Kim/TNS)
In  Brief:
  • A bill adopted by the Virginia Legislature would define assault on transit workers as a Class 1 misdemeanor and ban violators from transit for at least six months.
  • Thirty other states have similar laws on the books.
  • Even groups that support the laws acknowledge they don’t have clear effects on deterrence.
  • Advocates say transit agencies can reduce incidents by rethinking the way fares are collected.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic brought out the best in people — and it brought out their worst as well, says Virginia state Delegate Delores McQuinn. Suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence — “all those things escalated during that period,” McQuinn says. And as “frustration and anxiety” have boiled over into illegal acts, some people are more likely to be on the receiving end because of their jobs.

    “Transit workers, who’ve been essential workers during this period, seemed to have been getting their unfair share of people targeting them and assaulting them,” McQuinn says.

    That’s why she sponsored a bill in the Virginia House of Delegates that would increase the penalties for attacking bus drivers and other transit operators. The bill, which was approved by the state Senate after amendments to remove mandatory minimum sentences, would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to assault a transit operator, and it would ban people who are convicted of those assaults from riding the bus for at least six months.

    If the bill becomes law, Virginia will join more than 30 states that have laws on the books that classify assaults on bus drivers and other transit operators as a special category of violation. It’s a trend that began years ago, but which has taken on a new urgency in light of a sharp uptick in attacks. According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the rate of attacks on transit operators increased more than 400 percent throughout the 2010s. The vulnerability of bus drivers and other transit workers has also been thrown into even sharper relief during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few years.

    The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents public transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, has pushed for a range of measures to address operator safety at individual transit agencies and at the state and federal levels. In addition to Virginia, lawmakers in Oregon have recently moved to increase penalties for people who assault transit workers.

    New Jersey passed a similar law last year, and New Jersey Transit is now working to implement a “no ride list” that permanently bans riders who attack transit operators, similar to “no fly” lists in the airline industry. In general, there’s a “double standard” when it comes to worker safety in the airline industry and on public transit, says John Costa, Amalgamated Transit Union’s international president.

    “In the airline industry their reaction is very simple: You disrespect a pilot or a stewardess or anybody on the airlines, you’re taken off the plane immediately, you’re prosecuted, and you’re banned,” Costa says.

    The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included a provision requiring large transit agencies to create safety plans by convening safety committees made up of an equal number of labor representatives and managers. It also defines “assault on a transit worker” as an act in which someone knowingly “interferes with, disables or incapacitates a transit worker while the transit worker is performing the duties of the transit worker.” Big transit agencies will now be required to keep more detailed accounts of those assaults under FTA rules that were finalized last month. That will help workers make the case for more safety improvements, says Jeff Rosenberg, ATU’s director of government affairs.

    “It’s very common for our workers to get spit on or slapped around, and a lot of times agencies would try to sweep it under the rug,” Rosenberg says.

    The increasingly vulnerable working conditions have made it harder for transit agencies to attract and retain operators, contributing to a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, says Chris Van Eyken, director of research and policy at TransitCenter. Responding to assaults and other dangerous behavior on transit is a major challenge for agencies, says Van Eyken, who authored a 2021 report about safety on public transit. Beyond just increasing the amount of policing, agencies need to find ways to stop assaults before they happen — for example, by reducing the driver’s role in collecting fares, an interaction that’s one of the primary triggers for attacks, he says.

    “We absolutely should be punishing people that assault and harass transit operators, but we need to be thinking about how we prevent them in the first place,” Van Eyken says.

    Beyond lawmaking, groups like the ATU are pushing for changes to the physical layout of buses to give drivers more protection — from disease as well as assaults. The group recently met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and encouraged him to step up enforcement of FTA safety directives, requiring transit agencies that receive federal funding to establish labor-management safety committees and follow through on creating safety plans. Many agencies have been slow to carry those mandates out, says Rosenberg.

    While ATU supports state laws that increase the penalties for people who assault transit operators, and that bar them from getting back on the bus, Rosenberg acknowledges that they’re not likely to stop attacks from happening. Even when there are signs clearly posted on vehicles advertising the penalties for attacking transit workers, assaults tend to be spur-of-the-moment incidents in which the attackers aren’t thinking about consequences.

    “We do lobby for these laws, but to be honest, I don’t think they serve as a deterrent,” Rosenberg says. “They’re just the right thing to do.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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