IN THE NEWS ~ Fred's shift ended with a fist in his face. Like sitting ducks, too many Transit drivers are being targeted by commuters

PUBLICATION: The Calgary Sun
DATE: 2008.01.03
WORD COUNT: 540

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Fred's shift ended with a fist in his face. Like sitting ducks, too many Transit drivers are being targeted by commuters

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There are jobs where getting punched in the nose can be expected.

For boxers, a sharp shot to the sniffer is all in a day's work. Crushed nasal cartilage is a badge of honour in sports like hockey and wrestling.

Even police officers, trained to avoid flailing fists, occasionally end up with a mis-timed bruise on the beak.

But driving a C-Train or bus isn't supposed to be one of those jobs.

When it comes to olfactory offence, the only thing a transit worker should expect is a nose full of rancid body odour, courtesy of the occasional shower-shy rider.

A day's work shouldn't end with a frustrated passenger slamming his angry fist into your face, because the last train of the day has left the station.

It shouldn't result in an ambulance ride and a forced holiday at home, where two blackened eyes and a throbbing nose join your frantic wife, reminding you the attack could have been much worse.

It might have been a weapon instead of a fist, she tells you, fearful for your safety.

She's not alone in worrying.

"It could very well have been a knife, or he could have had all his buddies with him to join in -- of course I'm concerned about going back to work," says Fred, whose New Year's Day shift ended with a broken nose, one still trickling blood two days later.

Fred, a three-year veteran of the LRT lines, was attacked around 1:30 a.m. as he cleared his C-Train of lingering passengers, a daily chore rife with belligerent drunks and surly stragglers.

The assailant was a young man upset over missing his train, and police later arrested 21-year-old Shawn Michael Collins, charging him with assault.

The punch makes Fred the first Transit driver to be attacked by one of his passengers in 2008. There were roughly 40 drivers attacked in 2007.

Drivers have been battered at all times of the day, but Fred -- a 42-year-old dad who wants his last name left private, for fear of being targeted again -- says the late-night C-Train sweep is particularly hairy.

"People see you as an easy target, someone who they can take their frustrations out on and get away with it. It's getting worse every day," he says.

The annual number is still being tallied, but 32 driver assaults were officially recorded between Jan. and Sept. 2007, slightly less than the same period in 2006.

Spit is the weapon of choice when it comes to attacking a driver, but Fred is not alone in being battered by a passenger, with the transit union reporting up to 20 of this year's victims took time off work.

Ron Collins, spokesman for Calgary Transit, said the assaults are a grave concern, and passenger aggression has resulted in a self-defence program called "Out of the Blue," in reference to the "Code Blue"emergency call for a driver in trouble.

"It's mainly about communication, talking yourself out of a situation, but it does include a degree of self defence, and how to protect yourself from someone trying to attack you," says Collins.

The city is also in the midst of installing security cameras in all buses, but Collins says radical measures, like encasing bus drivers behind glass, isn't a realistic option.

"The vast majority of our drivers like the interaction with the public, and don't want to be behind glass or a door."

Fred's union is uncommonly charitable to the management of Calgary Transit on the subject of drivers being beaten up, saying the self-defence program offers "good advice".

But union boss Mike Mahar says Fred's broken nose must point the way to more changes, specifically having transit security guards on hand during the last C-Train sweep of the night. As well, he wants more legal support and advice for drivers who go to court to face their assailants.

The union is also backing a Private Member's Bill by NDP MP Peter Julian, which calls for stiffer sentences for assaults on transit operators.

As the city and the union look for a solution, Fred's broken nose serves as a unfortunate beacon to a serious issue -- keeping drivers safe.

With Calgary Transit struggling to fill 100 empty driving positions, assaults add a scary element to a role that is an absolute public necessity.

Being punched or beaten cannot be part of the job description if they want to keep the drivers they have.