"OPERATORS PAY THE PRICE."
KELOWNA – B.C. Transit is calling for changes after a third Kelowna bus driver was threatened with violence in the last two months—the latest involving a handgun.
Both transit and union officials agree people who threaten vulnerable bus drivers should be dealt with more severely by the courts. What was once a rare occasion is becoming more common, says Les Milton, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. He already sees the impact—one Kelowna driver is on long-term stress leave after a violent incident.
"We don't expect to see her back any time soon,” Milton says. “Kelowna used to be a sleepy little town, now it's making headlines on a daily basis.”
He joins B.C. Transit's support of a private member's bill in Ottawa proposing tougher penalties for assaults on bus drivers.
“There has to be changes to the criminal code for assaults on bus drivers to make sure there's an (aggravating) factor taken into consideration: That the assault was made on a helpless bus driver,” Milton says.
Wednesday night's gun threat capped off a bad couple of months for drivers. Around 11 p.m. the driver reached the end of his route on McCurdy Road East when the passenger, angered about the stop, got off the bus only to turn back on the driver with a handgun. Police say the man aimed at the driver, pulled the trigger several times producing an audible click, and told the driver he would kill him. Police are currently searching for the suspect, who fled the scene.
Last July a transit operator headed into West Kelowna on Highway 97 was beaten by a passenger demanding an unscheduled stop. Earlier in July, a bus driver was stabbed with a syringe by a passenger in an unprovoked attack on Banks Road.
Milton says those are just the ones reported—many aren't.
Where transit and its union part ways is on how the system itself could be improved to reduce conflicts.
“Our system truly needs an overhaul,” Milton says. “B.C. Transit and (its) municipal partners could add more time to the system.”
The frequency of attacks could also be a sign the transit service is spread too thin, he says. A company may bid on a contract for 100,000 hours of service, for example, and try to use only 80,000 hours of labour, Milton says.
“The passengers are frustrated,” he says. “But the operator pays the price.”
Milton says bus schedules in Kelowna are very tight and in the case of Wednesday night's confrontation, the end of the line was in the middle of a neighbourhood.
"Obviously the assailant was frustrated he wasn't at least left at a major thoroughfare,” he says.
Short of carrying pepper spray or tasers, drivers have few options. They must handle tense situations through verbal negotiation.
“We're trained to deal with the average person who misses the bus,” he says.
In all three cases, the drivers followed company policy but were still assaulted and harassed.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Julie Whittet at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (250)718-0428.