Coast Mountain Bus Company driver instructor Bruce Van Luven demonstrates a new Plexiglass shield that has been installed in one bus to protect its operator. The project is a pilot to test the barrier's effectiveness in protecting drivers from unruly passengers.

Plastic barrier testing begins to shield Metro Vancouver bus drivers

Hopes are high barrier will protect bus drivers from sucker-punching assailants on public transit

After years of talk and hundreds of vicious attacks, testing is now underway on a plastic shield to protect Metro Vancouver bus drivers from hostile passengers.

The clear polycarbonate barrier was to go into regular service Thursday on one Coast Mountain bus that will run various routes in north Burnaby as a six-month trial, and three more buses of different types will be outfitted with similar shields this spring in Port Coquitlam, Surrey and Vancouver.

Assaults on drivers were down in 2014 to 119 from 134 in 2013 but anxiety continues to run high for drivers after various severe attacks over the years.

Despite the concern, drivers have never been fully on board with the idea of a physical barrier, as some don’t want it to interfere with how they interact with friendly passengers.

Nathan Woods, president of the union representing bus drivers, said he’s optimistic the barrier being tested will work.

“The type of assaults this barrier will help to eliminate are the vicious ones – the sucker punches that debilitate and damage drivers’ lives for weeks if not years,” Woods said.

Derek Stewart, Coast Mountain’s director of safety, environment and emergency management, said the test is being funded and overseen by WorkSafeBC, which will also help assess the findings.

A key issue is whether drivers can hear passengers clearly and communicate with them.

Stewart said it appears that won’t be a problem as long as the passenger isn’t very soft-spoken.

The hard plastic is impact-resistant with low-glare but another concern is that drivers may get too hot.

Stewart said early testing suggests it will provide adequate protection.

“We re-enacted assaults by having somebody sit there and pretend to be sucker-punched,” he said, adding the shield also blocks spitting and most instances of thrown beverages.

If the new barrier is approved, it could still be limited to just certain bus routes, rather than a full roll-out.

TransLink runs various models of buses and each type will have to be custom-fitted with the new barrier, if it is adopted.

There’s also hope Parliament will soon pass tougher criminal penalties for assaulting  a bus driver.

A bill is expected to go to third reading in the House of Commons in the next few weeks that would require judges to consider an assault against a transit worker to be “aggravated”– opening up the potential for a sentence of federal jail time.

It would apply not just to transit bus drivers, but others, including school bus drivers and taxi drivers.

Woods said he’s optimistic the change will become law and says protecting drivers is a transit and road safety issue.

“When a transit operator is punched out and the bus is moving, everybody in the whole community is suddenly at risk – passengers, pedestrians and motorists.”

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