A bill to protect public transportation employees from assault has been introduced into Congress. The proposals promote the safety of bus drivers, rail workers, and passengers; and include measures to reduce the number of bus accidents. However, the proposals could take years to implement and - if passed - possibly amount to too little, too late.
In February this year, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), U.S. Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA-32), and U.S. Rep. John Katko (R-NY-24) introduced the Transit Worker and Pedestrian Protection Act (H.R. 1139) into Congress. The bill is an expansion of proposals introduced in 2017 by Rep. Napolitano that were intended to promote the safety of bus drivers and passengers; and although Rep. Napolitano's previous efforts got nowhere, this latest version has considerably more cross-party support.
The bill´s objectives are based on the assertion that “assaults on public transportation workers are a growing problem” and that avoidable bus accidents are occurring because of blind spots in bus drivers' vision. The bill - if passed - gives bus and rail operators two years to develop a risk reduction program to reduce accidents, injuries, and assaults on bus operators; or, in the case of rail operators - to reduce the number and severity of assaults on rail workers, including operators and station personnel.
Measuring the Success of the Bill Will be Difficult
Inasmuch as the intentions of the bill are admirable, the only measures actually required by the bill is that risk reduction programs are developed and submitted to the Secretary of the Department of Transport for approval. The content of the risk reduction programs will be based on risk assessments conducted by each bus and rail operator. So, if an operator feels “the deployment of assault mitigation infrastructure and technology on buses” is unnecessary, the operator doesn't have to implement them.
Furthermore, measuring the success of the bill is going to be difficult because - according to the Transit Advisory Committee for Safety Report (PDF) - many assaults on public transportation employees are unreported. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported injuries to transit system workers have fallen by a third since 2012. If employees will be required to report every verbal or physical assault - as has been suggested - assault rates will go through the roof once this bill is enacted.
Many Operators are Already Enhancing Driver Safety
Unfortunately, the safety of public transportation workers often only attracts public attention after a tragedy. Such was the case in New York, when cameras were installed on more of the Metropolitan Transport Authority's fleet following a fatal attack on Brooklyn bus driver Edwin Thomas. Some public transportation operators are taking further measures to enhance the safety of bus drivers and rail workers, and recently Metro Magazine published ten ways operators are trying to prevent assaults:
- Installing on-board surveillance systems.
- Installing driver shields.
- Increasing training, including a heavier focus on de-escalation and mental health awareness.
- Greater cooperation between management and unions to enhance driver protection.
- Increasing police/security presence, both uniformed and plain clothes.
- Working with state legislators to enhance penalties for assaults on drivers.
- Changing fare enforcement policies to “fare monitoring” policies.
- Installing emergency call buttons on buses.
- Posting signage explaining the punishment for people who assault bus drivers.
- Launching “See Something Say Something" campaigns.
A Multi-Faceted Approach is Good, Provided it´s Done Correctly
The above measures can contribute to the general safety of public transportation workers, but they are not necessarily going to protect bus drivers and rail workers from assault from the most common categories of assailants - i.e. passengers intoxicated by drugs or alcohol, and those with mental health issues. These categories of passengers won´t have the mindfulness that their actions are being recorded or that they may face an enhanced penalty if caught.
Pursuing a policy of “fare monitoring” in high crime areas is likely to encourage more fare dodging; and while installing fixed emergency call buttons in drivers' cabs can be effective if a potential attacker is standing by the cab, they are not of much use if the driver leaves his or her cab to sort out a problem and is attacked out of reach of the emergency call button. For this reason, many lone workers in potentially vulnerable situations prefer to use mobile employee safety apps.
Therefore, when bus and rail operators conduct their risk assessments and submit their risk reduction programs to the Department of Transport, they need to focus on the most appropriate solutions to protect public transportation workers, not just go through the motions of preparing a document and implementing a handful of meaningless measures in order to satisfy the demands of Congress - the demands of Congress possibly amounting to too little, too late.
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