Tampa Bay’s bus systems need to better document attacks on drivers | Editorial
The agencies added protections after violent attacks. But they can’t put those attacks in context without data on frequency and trends regarding threats to drivers.
Passengers board the Route 9 PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg.
Passengers board the Route 9 PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 31, 2020

In the last eight months, Tampa Bay’s bus systems have seen two horrific attacks on their drivers by passengers. While both the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority elected to erect plastic barriers around drivers for their safety after the first incident, both agencies still have not clearly stated to board members the number of driver attacks that take place each year and their severity. This is information that would keep bus drivers and passengers safer, so it is time for both agencies to step up their record-keeping and figure out an answer.

In May, 46-year-old Tom Dunn was driving a Hillsborough bus on Nebraska Avenue when a passenger walked up and said “God bless you” twice. Then the passenger slit Dunn’s throat, cutting his carotid and jugular arteries. Dunn died on the bus while bringing the vehicle to a stop. After Dunn’s death, the Hillsborough transit authority said they would complete a comprehensive safety assessment and a statewide symposium on safety before deciding on updating their buses with clear safety shields between the driver and passengers. Pinellas followed suit. But in the midst of shield installation for Hillsborough’s fleet, a Hillsborough County bus driver was cut in the leg by a passenger with a box cutter in November.

It should not be too much to expect for both transit agencies to have accurate records on hand of the number of violent incidents involving drivers each year. But, as the Tampa Bay Times’ Caitlin Johnston reported, neither agency has a coherent, accessible system to keep track of attacks on their drivers and neither disseminates the numbers they do have to their board members or drivers. A Times analysis showed that Hillsborough’s transit authority had 235 incident reports with bus drivers last year out of about 13 million passenger trips. Of those, 16 were physical attacks, including drivers getting spit on and punched. In Pinellas, the authority could not isolate the numbers of attacks on drivers alone. Records showed at least 625 verbal and physical incidents with both drivers and passengers in 2019 out of more than 12 million passenger trips.

What is the importance of keeping records of attacks on drivers? So agencies can learn from the incidents and make appropriate changes to better protect drivers. Two violent attacks in an eight-month period is particularly disturbing for the Hillsborough transit authority, particularly when a driver was killed in one of those attacks. The agencies spent about $1 million each to install safety shields between drivers and passengers on all of their buses. Adding safety shields is a step in the right direction, but it may not solve the problem entirely.

In this case, the transit agencies acted without thorough records that put the most vicious attacks in context and better inform public policy. It’s a basic responsibility, and they have to do better.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.