Bay area transit agencies are responding appropriately to the fatal knife attack on a Hillsborough County bus driver earlier this month by looking at several approaches for improving security. The move will require a balancing act; drivers cannot operate in a bubble, and safety enclosures present risks of their own. But the sense of immediacy is warranted, and it is encouraging that drivers are involved in the decision-making process. The effort could improve safety for drivers and passengers in a growing region with ambitious new visions for mass transit.
Thomas Dunn, 46, died May 18 when a passenger slit his throat while he was driving a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus along Nebraska Avenue. Witnesses said no physical altercation preceded the attack and a police investigation found "no evident provocation." Since 2008, as the Tampa Bay Times' Caitlin Johnston reported, nearly 2,000 bus drivers nationwide have been taken to a hospital with injuries from 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 this year, with just under two per month escalating to physical violence.
Attacks that result in death or serious injury are rare, but bus drivers all too regularly are harassed, spit on and pushed. Even a normal shift is a demanding, unpredictable environment, with bus drivers acting as chauffeurs, cashiers, guides and security. In the past four years, 20 Pinellas bus drivers have reported altercations with passengers, according to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Pinellas saw the number of altercations increase in 2017 and 2018, with nearly all involving arguments that escalated and often arising over fare payment. The agency rolled out new training for drivers that emphasizes de-escalation techniques. No altercations have been reported yet this year. Hillsborough also offers de-escalation training for its drivers as part of mandatory, quarterly safety meetings.
Yet with tens of thousands of people riding area buses every day, local agencies acknowledge they cannot control every situation. In the aftermath of Dunn's death, Hillsborough will undertake a comprehensive safety assessment and plans a statewide symposium on safety concerns in July. The proposals for improving safety run the gamut, from stationing guards at stops and on busy routes to deploying new technology including live video feeds, panic buttons and on-board emergency warnings.
Another option is a barrier partitioning the driver's seat from the passenger areas of the bus. The president of the Tampa local transit union said that while the design must enable drivers to exit easily in an emergency, the union is supportive of the dividers. Last week, Hillsborough borrowed a bus from Pinellas outfitted with a clear driver's partition that's part of a pilot project there. Better securing the cockpit is an idea worth exploring, providing it would not compromise a driver's ability to function or restrict the freedom of movement in a crisis.
The potential for attacks on drivers will only increase as the region looks to make robust new investments in buses and other mass transit. The new countywide transportation tax that Hillsborough voters approved in November is expected to fund a massive expansion of the county bus system. Area leaders across the region are also examining whether to build a three-county rapid bus line extending from St. Petersburg to Wesley Chapel. More passengers and more drivers in more buses create a potential for more conflicts. Area transit agencies should continue exploring safety improvements and ensure that drivers are represented at every step along the way.