IN THE NEWS ~ Probation for attack unjust, bus drivers say; Woman one of 52 drivers assaulted in past year

PUBLICATION: Vancouver Sun
BYLINE: Kelly Sinoski
Probation for attack unjust, bus drivers say; Woman one of 52 drivers assaulted in past year
TransLink is calling for stiffer penalties for people who assault bus drivers after a man who repeatedly punched a transit driver in the head was sentenced to just two years' probation.

Eric Liles, 19, was also banned from using public transit for two months after assaulting the driver on a community shuttle in Port Moody last summer. The woman suffered a concussion and was off for work six to eight months.

"Jail time would have been preferred," said Derek Zabel, spokesman for Coast Mountain Bus. "This is just a vicious attack. One of these days somebody's going to get killed."

Zabel said the lenient sentence is a setback for Coast Mountain and parent company TransLink, which have been trying to prevent attacks on Metro Vancouver's 3,300 bus drivers by boosting police and transit security around bus loops and exchanges and initiating fare-paid zones.

A new GPS radio system also allows drivers to press a button when an assault occurs, connecting them with the communications centre which can pinpoint the bus location and send help. In the past, drivers had to call the operations centre or rely on passengers to call 911.

Coast Mountain also hopes to have cameras installed on all 220 new trolley buses by late fall as well as start a three-month pilot project in August that will test three different types of Plexiglas shields on buses travelling routes where most assaults occur. Those routes could include Fraser, Arbutus and Main Street, Zabel said.

But he added none of those measures amount to much if the punishment doesn't fit the crime. Most people charged with assaulting a bus driver are given probation or let off with time served, he said, because "it's viewed as a bar-room fight."

"[Drivers] are very vulnerable out there," Zabel said. "We're pushing for a mandatory penalty. It's looking at all aspects of that and trying to get some kind of legal protection."

TransLink and Coast Mountain have met with B.C.'s regional Crown counsel to discuss legal protection. In addition, a private member's bill introduced by Burnaby-New Westminster New Democrat MP Peter Julian received first reading in the House of Commons in January. It would increase penalties for assaulting a public transit worker, while a measure proposed by Ontario Liberal MP Mike Colle would impose a fine of up to $50,000 on anyone caught with a weapon on a transit vehicle.

Jim Houlahan , vice-president of the bus drivers' union, Canadian Auto Workers' local 111, agreed there must be stricter deterrents to stop the assaults. He said fare-paid zones have helped reduce attacks on bus drivers and expects the cameras and Plexiglas barriers -- which are also being considered in Toronto and Chicago -- will also make a difference.

Although the number of assaults in Metro Vancouver has dropped significantly to 143 in 2008 from 240 in 2006 and 220 in 2007, Houlahan said assailants are getting bolder -- and striking for no reason.

Since January, 52 assaults against bus drivers have been logged across the region. In 14 cases, assailants spit in the driver's face, while five had a weapon, which includes anything in their hands such as a bottle, a beer can or a cellphone.

Houlahan noted in the Liles case, the young man was swearing and cussing at his girlfriend when they boarded the bus. When the driver asked him to stop swearing and sit down, he turned on her, punching her repeatedly in the head.

In another case, a Port Coquitlam driver was assaulted when three women and a man tried to board without paying. When the driver asked for at least one fare, the man attacked him.

A Surrey driver also had to seek medical attention after suffering severe injuries to his eyes and nose in a recent fight with a passenger, Houlahan said.

"It's like you're just sitting there and they disagree with you ... they just spit and run or sucker punch you or start whaling on you.

"There seems to be more people who will do this over nothing," Houlahan said.

"It's getting to the point of what can we do to protect our drivers short of a barrier or a police officer on every bus," Houlahan said.

Assaults this year: 53
Physical assaults 19
Cases of spitting in the driver's face 14
Spitting on the driver 10
Spit at 3
Verbal threats 2
Weapons involved assaults 5
Includes anything in the assailant's hand, including a cell phone, beer bottle, pepper spray etc.
Source: Coast Mountain Bus Vancouver sun