'Target on my back': Winnipeg Transit drivers fear violence and abuse on the job

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'Target on my back': Winnipeg Transit drivers fear violence and abuse on the job

With every stop he makes, bus driver Avie Erdile is preparing for the worst.

"Every person that gets on the bus, every one of us [drivers] has to run through our mind if they are a threat or not," he said.

The father of two, who has been driving a bus for two and a half years, never expected to be working a job that leaves him worrying for his safety.

"People take swings at me, threaten me," said Erdile. "I've had to witness people being beaten up and not been able to do anything about it."

The violence and verbal abuse has been going on for years, according to the Amalgamated Transit Union. After the stabbing death of Winnipeg Transit driver Irvine Fraser in February, some drivers are considering quitting.

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Some are pushed to the brink and taking stress leave. Many are seeking counseling.

"When I sit in this seat, every single day I expect something to happen and I'm relieved when something doesn't happen," said Erdile.

CBC News rode along with two transit drivers Monday night. The route was oddly quiet for Erdile. The streets even seemed to have less traffic than usual, he said.

People got on and off the bus with little commotion. Some offered a "thank you" as they left. A few regulars stopped to chat and ask Erdile about his weekend.

One woman claimed she didn't have the money to pay her fare, and was told to take a seat without paying. A young man playing rap music on his phone was told to turn it down.

A relatively uneventful ride for Erdile.

But even on a quiet night, he knows every stop has the potential for an altercation. Will the person have the fare? Will the person be intoxicated? Will they have a weapon?  

"It's a lot of stress on the mind and on the body, being in a state of hypervigilance from the time you get to work to the time you leave," said Erdile.

Most of the abuse he gets is unexpected and unprovoked.

"I had an individual get on the bus [once], didn't have fare. I said, 'OK, that's fine, go and have a seat,' and they took a swing at me," he said.

Drivers like Erdile have had enough. He agreed to speak to media because he wants things to change.

Since the death of his colleague, more and more drivers have spoken out about their experiences. It's something many drivers say they've kept hidden from the public for too long.

"There definitely is the sensation of having the target on my back. Makes me apprehensive about getting behind the wheel every day," he said.

He's not the only one who's worried.

Erdile's family is also concerned about what could happen when he leaves to work the night shift.

"They worry that I'm not going to come home at the end of the day, or that I'm going to come home broken or bruised," he said.

'You just feel like you're totally alone out there'

Faith Dietrich also works the night shift. The 63-year-old has been a bus driver for nearly five years. She took the job after moving back from the United States, where she lived for several years.

On Monday, she was driving the Number 47 bus that weaves through downtown before making its way down Higgins Avenue and over the Louise bridge, all the way into the depths of Transcona.

"The world is an angry place right now," she said. "It's not unusual to have things thrown at you, or the bus shot at as you drive by."

Faith's partner also works for Winnipeg Transit. His bus has been shot at three times in the six years he's been driving.

She says relationships are hard when you work nights. Drivers work split shifts, 12-hour days with a gap in between. The schedule rotates weekly with varying days off. Not many people can handle the life.

"The people that drive [a bus] are just awesome people. People made of steel inside, and they have to be now," she said.

"We almost always get fare evasion. We get wild acts of violence. Loud swearing — sometimes it's directed at us, sometimes it's not."

Dietrich has sought counselling since Fraser's death. She says she began having nightmares and trouble sleeping after the murder.

"It was really bothering me and I couldn't get past that it could have been me, it could have been anyone else working that late-night shift," she said.

She says she woke up that day to frantic messages from friends and family wondering if she was OK because no one knew yet who had died.

"To have that happen on a safe route just blew our minds. We just didn't know how to cope with it," she said.

She says the route where Fraser was killed is considered safe, which made her wonder about some of the routes she drives, which are known to be a little rougher.

"You just feel like you're totally alone out there," she said.

Dietrich says that when she encounters a problem passenger, sometimes she feels it would take too long for help to arrive, and that she has no choice but to deal with it on her own.

"A lot of times if we phone in a problem, they'll say, 'OK, bring it downtown,'" she said. "So if you're way out in Transcona or way out in Charleswood, there's no help for you.

"It scares me. Sometimes we can't get help as fast as we need it."

Dietrich says many drivers don't call for help or report abuse because by the time it happens it's too late to do anything about it.

She recalls a time when a woman asked her to make a stop that wasn't part of her route, an express route with fewer stops. She offered to stop at the next red light instead.

"As soon as she got off she turned around and threw her coffee at me," said Dietrich.

"I kind of went into shock. It was so totally unexpected."

But some of the other kinds of abuse don't wash away as easily.

"Since the murder, I've had one [person] that has told me that all bus drivers need to die," she said.

Dietrich says she rarely enforces the rules anymore when it comes to paying fares or asking for student ID cards.

"Two dollars and 70 cents is not worth my life," she said.

Drivers want shields, transit police

Erdile hopes to see some kind of safety measures taken. He'd like protective barriers for drivers, and transit police on every bus.

"There's only one point of entry and exit for us, and that's the front door, and that's our little gate there, and when someone comes up and gets in our face there is no option to run away," he said.

"There is no option to back out. Unfortunately, standing our ground is the only option we have," he said.

He says his concerns are not just about the safety of drivers, but for everyone who uses public transportation.

"Our job should be to drive the bus to get people where they want to go … if we are looking over our shoulder we're not watching the road," he said.

Dietrich would also like to see changes.

"I really think transit police is the way to go. We need something in effect to help us," she said.

"We have no protection."

While many drivers ponder retirement or finding other work, at 63 and with only five years on the job, Dietrich knows that isn't an option for her.

"This is going to be my last job, and I'm in a position now where I can't really quit."

Quitting isn't an option for Erdile either. His job lets him to put food on the table for his young family, and lets him see his kids before and after school.

He says he doesn't want to give up on his job because of a bad situation. He'd rather work to make things better.

"You put on a brave face and you get behind the wheel and you drive. The only option is going forward."