The Metro Transit bus driver was at the end of her route last month when a lone passenger boarded and sneaked up behind her.
He then groped her multiple times and tried to kiss her, forcing her to stick her head out the window of the empty and parked bus.
“I’m yelling at him, I’m screaming at him,” said the driver, who asked not to be named. “I tried to push him away, and I said, ‘Get off my bus right now!’ ”
Assaults on bus drivers and light-rail operators have been a longstanding problem in public transportation, but recent incidents have some drivers and operators questioning how Metro Transit communicates such incidents to employees. They also wonder whether enough is being done to protect them, particularly as a free fall in ridership in the midst of the coronavirus has led to added safety concerns. In the first three months of this year, Metro Transit bus drivers and light-rail operators have been assaulted 42 times on the job. Nearly 200 attacks have occurred each year since 2016.
Federal legislation that would require transit agencies to install barriers to protect bus drivers and better track these assaults nationally is pending in Congress. While acknowledging “one incident is one too many,” Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla pointed out that close to 80 million rides were provided last year on buses and trains, so the number of assaults is relatively low. Assaults declined about 6% to 175 reports in 2019, a dip some attribute to the installation of barriers on buses to protect drivers. There isn’t a blanket policy for communicating assaults to employees, Padilla said, adding that it depends on the incident and on the victim.
“Some people may not want their story out there,” he said.
The driver from the April incident said Metro Transit should share information about assaults without identifying people so colleagues can take extra precautions if necessary. Ryan Timlin, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005 in Minneapolis, said he found out about the April incident in the Star Tribune.
Ridership has drastically declined on Metro Transit buses and trains during the pandemic, and drivers may experience “an unsafe feeling” with fewer passengers aboard, said Timlin, whose union represents some 2,400 drivers, light-rail operators and others at Metro Transit. “The whole virus thing has everyone on edge.” Metro Transit holds a monthly safety and security meeting with a committee of managers, union officials and bus and train operators to discuss issues. Putting employee communications on the agenda every month is under consideration, Padilla said.
Drivers interviewed said Metro Transit and its police department respond quickly to assaults, and excel in assisting the affected drivers afterward.
But, they said, drivers companywide were left in the dark about recent assaults when information would have helped: On March 24, a male passenger grabbed at a bus steering wheel, forcing the driver to brake suddenly to avoid an accident. On April 3, a male passenger punched a bus driver in the head. The driver was unable to finish the route.
The assaults come amid efforts by Metro Transit to recruit bus drivers — the agency is currently down about 100 drivers. Often assaults are prompted over fares, which transit experts say could be avoided if there was a widespread system for passengers to pay before getting on the bus.
In addition, several of the recent attacks could have been prevented, or partly thwarted, if barriers had been installed on buses to protect drivers, according to Timlin. Employee safety emerged as an issue during contract negotiations in 2017, as ATU members voted to strike in the middle of Super Bowl festivities. A walkout was averted when the Metropolitan Council, which runs Metro Transit, agreed to work with the union on safety issues.
In late 2018, the council approved a $1.23 million contract to install barriers, which wall off drivers, in about 600 40-foot buses, roughly two-thirds of Metro Transit’s fleet.
Metro Transit has outfitted 152 buses with plexiglass barriers; another 472 are on order and will be installed when they arrive this summer at a rate of eight a week, Padilla said. Once the program is complete, some 624 barriers will be installed on buses 11 years old and newer. Older buses are expected to be replaced by new ones fitted with barriers at the factory.
“In a number of instances over the years, a barrier would have been only thing that would have stopped an assault,” Timlin said.
Padilla said the barriers will be installed on the remaining buses “as soon as is possible” given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some drivers say the barriers could protect them even more now, because passengers occasionally spit on them, a means of transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19. Last year, there were 46 spitting incidents reported against drivers, a 15% increase over 2018. John Costa, ATU’s international president, said he’s heard reports nationwide of bus drivers using shower curtains and heavy-duty plastic to shield themselves from passengers in the wake of the pandemic.
“Our members can’t work from home,” Costa said. “We don’t have the equipment, the armor, we need.”
Metro Transit bus driver Helen Robinson said she was assaulted April 19 by a female passenger on the Route 5 line.
The woman had been badgering her and erupted after Robinson pulled the bus over in south Minneapolis and told her to get off. “She refused to get off the bus,” Robinson said, “and I told her I’ll call the police.” Robinson said the woman pulled her off her seat and struck her on the side of her head. Robinson deployed a chemical irritant twice on the woman, who eventually got off the bus, leaving Robinson with a swollen lip and chronic headache. There was no barrier on Robinson’s bus. “If there had been a barrier, [the attacker] would have been blocked,” she said.
The other driver who was attacked last month said there was no barrier on that bus, either. Despite the assault, the driver said she has enjoyed working for Metro Transit for the past 13 years.
Until last month, the worst she had faced was general rowdiness, a male passenger who scared women by telling them he was a vampire and a kid who spit a mouthful of chewed up spicy hot Cheetos at her when she confronted him about dodging the fare.
“I feel like I’m doing a good service for people,” she said.
The suspect, Casey V. Moses, was charged with one count each of obstructing or interfering with the operation of a vehicle and fourth- and fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct. The driver returned to work a week after the assault.
“I’m a survivor,” she said, “not a victim.”