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Transit Workers Are Vulnerable To Assault, A Proposed Law Wants To Change That

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
A bus shelter in downtown Pittsburgh.

Being spit on, slapped, sucker-punched, and threatened with guns were just a few of the violations endured by Port Authority of Allegheny County drivers between January 2015 and January 2019. 

Such assaults appear to be increasing in frequency nationwide, according to proposed federal legislation to better protect workers. But it’s hard to quantify that increase, or the speed at which it’s happening, because current regulations require very little reporting from transit agencies.

Rail transit agencies have to report to the National Transit Database and PennDOT State Safety Oversight if there is a serious assault on an operator, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. A PennDOT spokesperson said there is no such state or federal regulation for non-rail operators, but a Port Authority spokesperson said the agency must report to the Federal Transit Administration any “major events,” defined as any time a driver is removed from a scene by ambulance.

The Transit Worker and Pedestrian Protection Act would require reporting on a wider range of incidents, said Joe Sheehy, legislative director for the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano (CA-32).

“Better reporting will allow us to better understand the problem,” said Sheehy. “We need to have better data.”

Sheehy noted that assaults on operators also endanger passengers.

Agencies do everything they can to suppress the statistics of assaults on transit workers, said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“Transit managers see their job as moving buses from place to place,” he said. “They don’t see themselves as being stewards of the workers.”

That’s simply not true, said Adam Brandolph of the Port Authority.

“Operators are on the front line of what Port Authority does every single day and their safety is paramount,” he said. “We’ve lobbied for years for legislation, including a statewide operator assault bill to protect operators. We’re happy to see the operator safety has been identified as a priority at the federal level.”

Assaults often grow out of a fare dispute or something simple, said Stephen Palonis, president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents transportation workers in Allegheny County.

“That’s the way it is out there, though,” he said. “When you’re out there you’re on your own. Fortunately, you have a radio that you can call police for help and everything else but it doesn’t stop stuff from happening.”

Port Authority recorded at least 51 assaults in the last four years. Data for some months was missing, and Brandolph said some incidents may have been resolved without being reported. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, SEPTA, recorded 111 assaults from 2014 to 2018.

All Port Authority operators take a one-day Crisis Awareness Training program, which is designed to help them learn to de-escalate potentially volatile situations, said Brandolph. At SEPTA, agency officials are increasing training as well as on-board surveillance, among other efforts, according to a spokesperson.

In addition to assault reporting, the proposal in Congress would also require transit agencies to create risk reduction plans, install physical barriers to protect drivers, and retrofit or replace buses that create blind spots during left hand turns.

The bill was introduced in 2018, but was not voted on before the session ended. Sheehy said they’re hoping to see the legislation come to a vote, but if not, to add it to the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act that must be reauthorized before it expires in 2020.