Following Tampa bus driver slaying, PSTA agrees to new shields

A rendering of how the PSTA’s planned barriers for bus drivers will look. It will cost up to $5,000 per bus to install. (Courtesy of PSTA)
A rendering of how the PSTA’s planned barriers for bus drivers will look. It will cost up to $5,000 per bus to install. (Courtesy of PSTA)
Published June 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County bus drivers may soon be protected by a tempered glass partition, a measure pushed by drivers following the brutal slaying of one of their own last month.

Thomas Dunn was driving a public bus down Nebraska Avenue in Tampa when a passenger came up behind him and slit his throat. The May 18 attack was captured by a bus security camera. Footage showed that Dunn, 46, did not see his assailant even in the moments before his death. His eyes were focused on the road.

Hillsborough County still has not determined exactly what beefed-up security measures it may add to its buses, but the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has announced plans to equip its 210 buses with new barriers by the fall. PSTA leadership agreed with the Service Employee International Union on Friday to add the shields, but the PSTA finance committee and board still needs to approve the purchase later this month.

"The horrific murder of our fellow bus driver in Tampa was a shocking wake-up call for our drivers, and we want to make sure that this tragedy doesn't happen again," April Murphy, a retired driver and union representative, said in a statement. "We took a stand and voiced our concerns, and would like to thank our PSTA leadership for listening to us and taking immediate action to ensure that our drivers are safe and no longer have to live in fear."

More than 15 Hillsborough County drivers demanded safer working conditions during a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board meeting on June 3. They shared stories of being punched, attacked and spit on. Pinellas drivers attended to show their support and have been echoing the same concerns in their county.

[Read more: 'Now I'm afraid.' Hillsborough drivers demand more safety.]

While deaths are rare, bus drivers have long reported verbal and physical abuse from unruly passengers. Since 2008, nearly 2,000 drivers nationwide have been taken to the hospital because of an assault, according to the National Transit Database. Hillsborough authorities recorded an average of 13 verbal confrontations a month in the first four months of the year. On average, just under two per month escalated to physical violence.

Pinellas County has been testing out a barrier in one of its buses for the last six months.

"After hearing from our drivers last week, that they felt scared to go to work and feared for their own lives, we knew we had to act as quickly as possible," PSTA CEO Brad Miller, said in a statement. "When it comes to keeping our drivers safe, we must move at lightning speed."

The PSTA estimates it could cost up to $5,000 to install each of the glass barriers. The approved design covers more area than the one Pinellas County had been testing.

In total, it could be about a $1 million investment.

PSTA officials says the barriers take up to six weeks to be manufactured. Crews are expected to begin installing them in August and all PSTA buses are slated to have them by the end of October.

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Meanwhile, HART has created a new committee that is expected to have a report with safety recommendations, costs, and a timeline by a July board meeting.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.