Philly bus drivers left vulnerable at the wheel

While making the last stop on the Route K bus at Ridge and Midvale a few months, a female passenger walked up to Robin, called her a b—ch, and then without warning proceeded to spit on her and punch her in the face.

“I was really nervous, shaken up,” recalled the SEPTA operator, who has been on the job less than two years and declined to give her last name. “When the passengers are standing close to me or right behind me, I’m always aware and looking in my mirror at what they’re doing because I don’t know if they’re going to assault me either.”

Robin is among 67 SEPTA operators assaulted this year, compared to 77 a year ago.

SEPTA implemented mandatory deescalation training for operators last year after a rash of assaults, but Transportation Workers Union Local 234 President John Johnson argued that training cannot help in all instances, such as Robin’s case.

“If the attack is unprovoked and you have no idea it’s going to happen, how do you deescalate it?” Johnson questioned.

Several transit agencies have responded to the nationwide rise in attacks on operators by installing clear plastic shields that insulate drivers from passengers. NJ Transit is installing the shields on 820 buses after completing a pilot program and New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is installing the shields on its entire fleet of 5,600 buses. SEPTA Director of System Safety James Fox said the authority has considered the idea, but wants to see the outcomes of the programs in New Jersey and New York before making the investment on its 1,400-bus fleet.

“We really think that though the shield has some value, [we want to see] whether the shield does what it’s supposed to do,” Fox said last week. He also mentioned concerns about the cost to retrofit buses and the impact on customer service.

Official: Bus shields only part of solution

The head of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents thousands of mass transit operators, said bus shields are just part of what needs to be done to enhance protection for operators.

“If you really want to solve the problem, the solution would be top flight communications … developing shields into new bus design, bigger, better work stations for drivers, and getting police assigned,” ATU President Larry Hanley said.

SEPTA said it has increased police patrols on its vehicles in conjunction with the Philadelphia Police Department to help deter crime.

Union to talk to SEPTA

Johnson said he plans to talk with SEPTA about purchasing shields and wants to “explore every option that’s available” to protect operators.

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