IN THE NEWS ~ Beaten bus driver has eye surgery, Union hopes incident boosts support for new crime bill

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Beaten bus driver has eye surgery
Union hopes incident boosts support for new crime bill

Laura Drake, Edmonton Journal

The Edmonton bus driver who was savagely attacked Thursday morning was identified Friday as 58-year-old Tom Bregg of St. Albert.

"Hopefully, he will recover, and if you know Tom, he's going to try," said Stu Litwinowich, president of the union that represents the drivers.

Bregg, a 33-year Edmonton Transit driver, underwent eye surgery Friday. Litwinowich said that close friends might be able to visit him today.

About 7:20 a.m. Thursday, while driving the Route 10 to Clareview, a man boarded Bregg's bus and started swearing and yelling.

Witnesses said Bregg pulled over and asked the man to leave. The man swung at Bregg, allegedly punching him repeatedly before dragging him by the coat out the open doors of the bus and stomping on his face.

Gary Edwin Mattson, 24, has been charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault.

Bregg was put in the intensive care unit Thursday, Litwinowich said, but was expected to have eye surgery Friday and be taken out of intensive care.

"The report I got was that he's doing quite well considering. When they asked him to touch his thumb to his index finger, he could," Litwinowich said.

Litwinowich said he hopes the attack might help persuade MPs to support a private member's bill before the House of Commons.

The bill, put forth by the NDP's Peter Julian, proposes harsher punishment for anyone convicted of assaulting a public transportation worker who is on the job.

"The intention of Peter's bill is to give greater attention to the class of people who serve the public," Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan said.

The assault was already severe enough to warrant an attempted murder charge, making it more egregious than the crimes the bill is meant to address, Duncan said.

She supports the bill for recognizing the increased danger drivers can face.

"I think people often don't think about how just at risk these people are and it's hard to put any kind of security in while still enabling the public to interact with them."

(Peter) Julian, the NDP member for Burnaby/New Westminster, said Friday the bill is meant to recognize not only the increased danger public transit workers face, but the danger the public is placed in when these assaults happen.

Edmonton St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber, who sits on the House of Commons justice committee, said the bill has not reached the committee stage.

"I think the bill is well intentioned and I credit Mr. Julian for bringing the bill forward," he said, adding that he does not know yet whether he will support it.

Rathgeber, a Conservative, said the government has been working hard at its crime legislation and that a bill was just sent back to the house that, if passed, would end conditional sentences for aggravated assault convictions.

Rathgeber said he's not sure it would be a good idea to start dividing up Criminal Code punishments by vocation.

"My inclination, without prejudging the debate on Mr. Julian's bill, is that the government should afford equal protection to all victims regardless of what they do for a living."

He said he recognizes that transit drivers have jobs that can often put them in vulnerable positions.

An Edmonton Transit operator who has been driving a bus for three and a half years said that all drivers feel afraid on occasion, but it becomes part of the job.

"We are put in a position to talk to these people all the time. If a guy's on the street, you can walk around him. But when you're on a bus, it's your job to talk to everyone," said Heather, who did not want her last name used.

Heather said many drivers will let people get away without paying if it seems like too much trouble to stop them. However, when someone seems like they might threaten the other passengers, she said it's her job to make sure they get off the bus.

Apart from adding more safety officers to routes, Heather said she's not sure what else could be done to make drivers feel safer.

"You kind of just got to put up with it."