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Hillsborough, Pinellas install safety shields to protect bus drivers

The two transit agencies took action after a Hillsborough driver was stabbed and killed by a rider earlier this year.
Rekira Owens, a bus driver with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, greets officials from behind a newly installed shield as they board a bus Thursday in Tampa. The clear divider is meant to protect drivers from physical assaults after a driver was killed in Tampa this year. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 10

TAMPA — Hillsborough County bus driver Tunisha Jordan said she feels like the transit authority is finally listening to safety concerns she and other drivers have shared for years.

Unfortunately, she said, it took the May 18 death of coworker Thomas Dunn at the hands of a passenger for the agency to take action.

RELATED: Slain HART driver chose busy route because he “loved people,” friend says

Five months later, the transit authority debuted its first bus updated with a clear safety shield that separates the driver from riders. Local elected officials and law enforcement toured the bus at an event Thursday.

The maintenance team for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority “is custom-fitting each bus and van, which includes moving the fare box,” said Ben Limmer, CEO of the agency. “We accelerated the installation of the bus operator shields. ... We’re not going to stop here (with safety improvements). The goal is to get better tomorrow than we are today.”

The rest of the agency’s 180 buses and 12 vans will be outfitted with the barriers over the next couple weeks, each put into service after the shield is installed.

Dunn, 46, died when a passenger slit his throat while he was driving a bus along Nebraska Avenue. Witnesses said no altercation preceded the attack and a police investigation found “no evident provocation.” Dunn managed to safely pull the bus over before he died, and no passengers were harmed.

Jordan and other drivers present praised the transit agency for acting quickly in the wake of his death. The response of reallocating $1 million, working with the union to find a design for the shield that drivers were comfortable with, ordering the shields and starting installation within five months “went a long way” toward helping drivers feel they were heard and valued, Jordan said.

“But it took this tragedy to happen for eyes to be opened, and it shouldn’t happen that way," Jordan said. “In a sense, (Dunn) is a God-send. He saved those people on the bus and he continues to save operators and help operators to this day.”

Across Tampa Bay, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is on a similar timeline, starting the installation of its bus barriers next week. The agency had been piloting a similar safety shield before Dunn’s death, and spent $1.1 million this summer to buy them for its fleet of nearly 200 buses.

There are different designs for shields, with some extending farther than others. The partitions get mixed reviews nationwide, with some drivers feeling they are too confining.

“I know for a lot of individuals, since this happened, that fear of confinement has gone out the window," Jordan said. “We have families to get home to at the end of the day.”

RELATED: Death or injury are rare among bus drivers, but they’re used to being spit on, harassed or pushed.

Since 2008, nearly 2,000 bus drivers nationwide have been taken to a hospital with injuries from an assault, according to the National Transit Database.

An attack that results in death or serious injury is rare, but drivers in Hillsborough know what it’s like to be spat on, harassed and pushed, said Colin Mulloy, safety director with the Hillsbrough authority.

Hillsborough’s transit agency averaged about 122 verbal altercations against its drivers annually between 2016 and 2018. Physical assaults in that time frame were less common, with an average of about 15 incidents reported each year, according to data the agency maintains.

This year could see higher than average numbers, with the agency already logging 125 verbal and 10 physical altercations, including Dunn’s death.

Both local transit agencies are also working with law enforcement and safety experts to provide de-escalation training so drivers know how to diffuse contentious situations.

“Our bus operators deal with thousands of different humans every day and you have no idea what they’re going through,” said Brad Miller, CEO of Pinellas’ transit authority. “They’re probably just trying to get home and you’re just trying to do your job.”

Efforts to make riding the bus safer for all extend past the new shields. The front of buses in both counties display messages urging passengers to “ride with respect.” New advertisements inside Hillsborough’s vehicles encourage people to be kind and courteous and list “rules for riding.”

Hillsborough also is working on a series of videos that profiles different drivers and helps riders connect with them by sharing personal stories, dreams and hobbies.

“We are reminding the public that it is very much against the law to threaten or assault transit operators,” Limmer said. “The campaign really does speak to customers, operators and the community. ... It’s really aimed to elevate the transit operator position to the level of first responders.”

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