Unions up rewards in bus-driver assaults, want tougher sentencing for those convicted

How would you like it if in your job someone at any given moment could walk up to you and punch you in the face?

That's what it's like being a bus driver these days. In addition to piloting huge, crowded people-carriers on our congested streets, often in adverse weather conditions, drivers risk random assaults from passengers who many be drunk, who don't feel like paying the fare, have mental illnesses or are just plain ornery.

Seated in their confined driving positions they're vulnerable and have little ability to fight back from a blitz attack, especially if the bus is still moving.

Canadian transit unions have been complaining for years. Now some are putting their money where their mouths are.

Unions representing drivers working for Metro Vancouver's Coast Mountain Bus Co., are offering a $15,000 reward for information to help convict anyone who assaults a driver, up from the previous $2,000.

“We can’t have these assaults go on the way they’ve been going on,” Unifor Local 111 president Nathan Woods told the Vancouver Province.

The union is also renewing calls for the tough-on-crime Conservative government to make assaulting a transit operator an aggravating factor in Criminal Code charges and sentencing.

[ Related: Bus driver stunned at attacker's sentence ]

Drivers are upset at the relatively light sentences attackers have been getting. An Ottawa man received a suspended sentence in October for an April attack on an OCTranspo driver that left him with a broken nose and ribs.

The same thing happened last year when a man was convicted of assaulting a Vancouver bus driver Charles Dixon, who suffered a concussion and brain injury. He was off work for months and now has to wear a padded boxing helmet to protect his head while working. The judge at the time took into account attacker Del Louie's aboriginal heritage and his fetal alcohol syndrome.

Unifor Local 111 (previously CAW 111) said assaults on transit operators should be treated the same as attacks on police, paramedics or other first responders.

"The Crown asked for nine to twelve months in jail because Del Louie had previously been convicted of attacking a woman bus driver, assaulted Dixon and his son and broke his bail conditions three times, including further assaults on a police officer and emergency service workers," union president Don MacLeod said in a news release at the time.

"Our members felt even that sentence would have been inadequate but at least a step forward to deterring the ongoing violence against bus drivers. Instead, the judge gave Del Louie 18 months house arrest and gave bus drivers another message that the courts do not regard violence against them as serious — a terrible message to send."

Louie was jailed for 60 days last March for breaching his conditions, The Canadian Press reported.

Global News reported Unifor and the Amalgamated Transit Union say a driver is assaulted in the Metro Vancouver system on average once every three days. There were 124 reported assaults so far this year, including verbal threats and spitting, up from 116 in all of 2012. However, that's down considerably from the 246 incidents in 2006.

[ Related: Video of attack on Winnipeg bus driver underlines public transit concerns ]

Senator Bob Runciman told the Red Chamber last month that attacks on drivers are all too common across Canada.

“I’d like to say this attack was an isolated incident, but it was not," he said, referring to the Ottawa case. "Two thousand bus drivers are assaulted every year in Canada.”

Runciman noted Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has a private member's bill before the Commons to amend the Criminal Code to make assaulting a driver an aggravating factor in sentencing.

Not all assaults leave physical scars. Vancouver driver Gord Dunkley was spit on by a woman who was HIV positive, the Province reported. He spent anxious months waiting for final test results to show he had not been infected.

“It pretty much tore my life apart,” he said. “I shut down emotionally, my life was on hold for six months.”