EDITORIAL: When work is a war zone

They are verbally abused, spit on, punched, kicked and threatened regularly, yet they are given few tools to protect themselves.

When it comes to on-the-job violence, bus drivers are under the gun.

Most drivers will say abusive passengers are part of their regular shift. According to the bus drivers’ union, there were 241 assaults against members recorded in 2006. In a particularly disturbing incident last Halloween, a female bus driver in Vancouver who gave candy to two teen girls was dragged off the bus and badly beaten.

The men and women who shuttle commuters around Metro Vancouver are in a vulnerable position. They bear the brunt of frazzled travellers upset with inadequate service and rising fares. Like police, drivers are on the front lines when they come face to face with the erratic behaviour of the mentally ill and/or drug-addicted.

Barriers for bus drivers – separating them from the general public – have been discussed and rejected as too costly. Surveillance cameras have been promised, but they won’t help drivers during a potentially deadly attack.

And if they do fight back?

Last May, when a bus driver was spit on by what some witnesses called a well-known aggressive panhandler, the driver spit back.

He was criticized for breaking company policy.

It is against this backdrop that an incident in Surrey last week must be viewed. Police are investigating allegations a bus driver kept driving after a man who had been stabbed in the back at the bus stop got on board. He apparently pulled over at the urging of passengers so the man could walk to nearby Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Given the dangerous atmosphere in which bus drivers work, many questions arise. Was the driver even aware the man had been injured? If so, was the driver concerned for his or her personal safety? For the safety of the other passengers? What if the knife altercation had moved from the bus stop onto the bus?

On the heels of three incidents in Victoria last month in which passengers brandished knives on transit, it’s clear more needs to be done to protect bus drivers, who are increasingly at the helm of a risky ridership.

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