Around 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Metrobus operators are among those victims. Metro says 42 bus operators were physically assaulted in the first three quarters of 2011. Commentator Jackie Jeter, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 689, which represents Metrobus operators and other Metro workers, says it's time for Metro to address the problem.
Physical assaults against Metrobus operators range widely. Aggressors have punched, spat on, bitten, stabbed, and shot operators. Bus operators have been sprayed with pepper, hit by thrown objects, and even sexually assaulted.
Despite the severity of these crimes, you don't hear much about workplace violence against Metrobus drivers. Perhaps, the silence is due to the current trend of dumping on these blue-caller workers. Recent news reports create the mistaken image that operators are a band of careless, reckless drivers, who routinely wreck cars and injure pedestrians. In this climate, it's hard to generate compassion for this vital workforce.
But Metrobus operators want the public to know that most of them go to work each day committed to delivering riders safely to their destinations. The men and women behind the wheel are truly where the rubber meets the road. They serve nearly 12,000 bus stops along 323 routes in the Washington Metropolitan Region. What's more, while navigating a megaton vehicle through the region's notoriously congested traffic, bus operators take fares, answer customer questions, and keep an eye and an ear out for any threats of assault, whether verbal or physical.
Violent crimes against operators can cause wholesale damage. A single assault can hurtle a normal ride into a dangerous episode where safety is at-risk for everyone. Passengers can get hurt, bus service can be interrupted, and operators can sustain critical injuries.
Metro can protect drivers from assaults and improve overall bus safety. Three things must happen.
First, the union representing Metrobus operators calls on Metro to deploy more transit police officers to hot spots, those bus routes with the highest incidence of violence. Currently, only 22 police officers patrol Metro's fleet of more than 1,500 buses, resulting in spotty coverage at best on high-crime routes.
Second, we urge Metro to install a plastic shield around the driver's seat in more than 300 buses. At its December meeting, Metro's board voted to reduce the proposed shield program by more than 83 percent, dropping from 301 buses to 51 that get shields.
In opposing the protective shield, D.C. City Councilwoman and Metro board member Muriel Bowser has argued the shield might be an overreaction. According to the Washington Examiner, Bowser says it "sends a message that bus drivers are not safe and people are not safe."
Finally, violence against bus operators is a problem. Metro needs to face that reality and take action to protect the agency's workforce and the riding public. Fending off attacks should not be part of an operator's day's work
Jackie Jeter is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 689, which represents Metrobus operators and other Metro workers.