Diane Rude was driving a Metro Transit bus one morning in St. Paul when a deranged passenger slipped a scarf around her neck and choked her.

“Just drive,” he instructed. “Find a quiet place so I can kill you.”

Every year, dozens of Metro Transit bus drivers are assaulted in some way. Drivers have been punched, spat upon and verbally abused. Assaults often erupt over fare disputes, but others occur because someone is having a bad day or has a mental illness.

The phenomenon has reached “epidemic” proportions, according to the union that represents bus drivers. And it’s likely to get worse as more people use public transportation.

Bus driver assaults have attracted national attention. President Obama’s $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act — a wide-ranging federal law funding transportation — calls for safety measures to decrease and prevent these attacks. A national online dialogue on transit worker assaults took place this summer.

“You have to sum up people at every stop,” said Russ Dixon, a Metro Transit bus driver for the past 29 years, who was spit on by a passenger five years ago. “When you open the doors, you think, ‘Who will be the problem?’ ”

Airline pilots are locked in the cockpit during flight following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Light-rail operators are enclosed in the front car of trains. Even taxicabs feature a partition to protect drivers from virulent passengers. Only bus drivers — fundamental cogs in the nation’s transit infrastructure — are left so widely vulnerable to attack.

“We are that rare breed of public servant — we serve in the neighborhoods at all hours of the day and night, and we’re collecting taxes in the form of fares,” said Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus drivers.

Yet no easy fix exists to ensure driver safety. Plexiglass barriers are loathed by many drivers, and redesigning buses is an expensive prospect for transit agencies.

Lasting scars

When Rude was hired by Metro Transit 24 years ago, she discovered she liked driving a bus and was good at it. “You learn body language [of passengers], the tone of their voice,” she said. “Making eye contact is very important.”

While driving the Route 21 bus, which travels between Minneapolis and St. Paul, a man boarded one morning in November 2006 at Lake Street near Interstate 35W. Rude noticed that he was wearing a bandanna on his head, which he’d later use to choke her.

“He was mentally off,” Rude said. He spouted military terms and called her an “infidel.” He exhorted, “starboard!” and “port!”

As he squeezed her neck, Rude kept driving and pressed a silent alarm, alerting police. She kept talking: “I heard you singing back there, do you like Bob Seger?” He replied that he liked the Detroit rocker, but then said, “I told you not to drink the purple mouthwash.”

After spotting police, Rude stopped the bus in downtown St. Paul. Her attacker grew agitated. “I figured we’d buy some munchies for our trip,” she said, trying to calm him down. Officers stormed the bus and tackled him. He was later convicted of kidnapping and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

The ordeal lasted about six minutes, but Rude says she’s been scarred ever since. Time and therapy have helped, but occasionally a passenger resembling her attacker will rattle her. She grows frightened if her route takes her to isolated stretches of roadway.

Possible solutions

For the 1,600 bus drivers in Metro Transit’s fleet, there are multiple resources should someone be attacked physically or verbally, according to Christy Bailly, the agency’s director of bus operations. Police, supervisors and medics, if necessary, arrive at the scene, and direct drivers to counseling and peer support groups. Should an attacker face criminal charges, Metro Transit offers help negotiating the legal process.

“The first priority is the operator’s welfare, physical and mental health,” Bailly said. “The first 24 hours are the most critical time to get support to someone who has suffered trauma.”

Each bus in Metro Transit’s 907-vehicle fleet is equipped with video cameras, something they say helps deter incidents. Beyond that, officials decline to disclose much about mechanisms on buses that can mitigate an attack.

Mark Lawson, president of ATU Local 1005 in Minneapolis, says the security systems are reactionary and do little to deter attackers. “We’ve had cameras since the ’90s, and people are still being assaulted,” he said.

Last year, 88 Metro Transit drivers were assaulted, up 21 percent from the 73 assaults in 2014. Forty-nine assaults have taken place as of mid-August.

One solution pushed by the transit workers’ union involves redesigning buses to provide a more secure workspace for drivers. This could include a door to the left of the driver, providing them with a quick exit if attacked.

“The workstation in buses haven’t been redesigned in probably 60 years,” said ATU’s Hanley.

Some transit agencies have installed aftermarket plexiglass to shield drivers from passengers, but Lawson says the union wants something more substantial.

Wayne Joseph, executive vice president of bus business for New Flyer of America, which has a large manufacturing plant in St. Cloud, says more transit agencies are retooling their buses to include safety features. “We install [them] on new builds and have retrofitted hundreds of older buses,” he said. It costs about $4,500 to retrofit an existing bus with a door and bulletproof glass, he said.

Joseph said transit agencies in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and Las Vegas have led the way.

Others suggest requiring passengers to pay before they board a bus — as is the case with light rail — to avoid fare disputes. This is how the new A-line rapid bus service in St. Paul works.

Metro Transit drivers are not permitted to carry firearms, but they may use aerosol deterrents, such as pepper spray, if certified. And special training can help Metro Transit drivers learn to defuse tense situations, Bailly said.

“You have to deal with different personalities, look at each person as an individual, understanding what they’re going through that day,” she said. “Looking them in the eye, goes a long way toward gaining mutual respect with customers. You have to learn not to not take things personally.”