Saturday, 2 November 2013


The term "Fare Dispute" has always bothered me.

According to every study I have read in researching assaults on bus drivers, "Fare Dispute" has been listed as the number one reason that bus drivers get assaulted. If I were to go to Futureshop, grab a four dollar item off the shelf, and refuse to pay for it, would that be called a "Payment Dispute"?


And if I punched the clerk for refusing to just take my excuse and the item, what would that be? Would I be allowed back into Futureshop? What if I dragged the clerk outside and broke his nose and ribs? Could I still head into Futureshop and expect it to be life as usual? It's just a payment dispute.

You probably know the story already, but there it is. 38 year old Paul Ness gets a suspended sentence for what the media has reported as his second assault charge, and our driver gets a lifetime of wondering when the next Paul Ness might walk on his bus and do what Ness' lawyer describes as a minor assault, namely drag him off his bus and break his ribs and nose in front of a bus full of his stunned passengers.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, it isn't. Sixty, yes SIXTY of us get assaulted each year here in Ottawa. At least, that's what gets reported. Sixty times a year, a dispute escalates into a physical confrontation on a bus. Urine in cups thrown on drivers. Spit spat on drivers. Punched drivers. Kicked drivers. Drivers hit with cellphones. Food thrown on drivers. Hot coffee thrown on drivers.

And it's all because of the strike.

Reading comments in Ottawa often focuses on the strike.

Which explains why drivers are being assaulted in record numbers all over North America. Google it. I don't have the time to write this all down. Bus drivers are under attack in every major city in North America. We get assaulted more than any other profession.

Somehow, the strike in Ottawa has caused passengers in every city in Canada and the United States to assault their bus drivers. 

I am of course, being facetious. 

There is a problem in our industry, and it's time we talk about it. 

Ralph Goodale has tabled a BILL that singles out assaults on transit drivers with language that makes these types of assaults an aggravating factor in sentencing. The argument against this type of legislation is that bus drivers are no more special than any group. I understand that logic, and would agree that an assault at any workplace should fall under this legislation, not just bus drivers. But Tim Hortons cashiers are not the folks fighting for this legislation. Bus drivers are. We'll blaze the trail, you other folks can latch on later once the precedent has been set.

Precedent really is what this legislation is about, by the way. Folks are worried about bus drivers getting special treatment in the justice system, but think about it. The same legislation that lets a bar fight deescalate into a minor assault charge and boys-will-be-boys type sentencing is the same legislation that lets a passenger bully a bus driver for months, drag him out of his workplace, and break his bones over a few dollars. The court system is littered with suspended sentences over assaults between two folks who know each other and let things go a little too far one night after a few wobbly pops and an argument over who has the bigger pants-shovel. Those are the current precedents that protect bus drivers.

How can that legislation possibly serve to protect what has proven to be one of the most vulnerable public servants in all of Canada? There were 2,061 assaults on Canadian bus drivers in 2011. This is an epidemic, and it's high time we stop comparing workplace assaults to fistfights at the Sens game.

The courts need to fix this. The industry needs to fix this. The cities need to fix this.

Once the courts fix their end, we need to reevaluate our role in the culture of transit, because we are doing it wrong. 

If Fare disputes are such an issue, then first order of business : Fix Presto. Get automated tellers that can refill a Presto card on-the-spot. Give customers 24 hour access to these machines. MAKE IT EASY to pay. Do away with the tickets, the transfers, the headaches. Put fare collection entirely into the hands of the customer. You cannot have a fare dispute with yourself. You won't see a customer arguing with a handheld interac machine at the local Mac's Milk. Put the fare collection into their hands.

Customers need real-time data at the stations. Staring at a static schedule makes the bus late, and the first available interaction about that lateness into a confrontation with the driver. Staring at a monitor with a real-time display of where their bus is, and any traffic delays or detours makes the customer into an informed participant in the process. There are apps dedicated to traffic, weather, and bus locations. This is the information that passengers need to make informed choices. So give it to them. Frustrated passengers might not take it out on the front line if they see what's happening in the trenches.

Drivers need more training. We need intense training in customer service, and ATU279 needs to get involved in this. No more standing on the sidelines. The Union needs to get involved in identifying combative and disgruntled drivers, and help them to change their attitudes and behaviors. The Union and the City need to get the attention of their workforce, and get them focused on changing the culture of transit operations to a focused fleet of service professionals. Drivers need to find pride in customer service, and stop focusing on the vehicle. This begins with the hiring process, and continues with training and retraining. Drivers should be trained to take the bus, as well as drive the bus. Drivers should spend time in a wheelchair, getting around. Drivers should spend time planning a trip across town at rush hour, with an appointment time. We need to walk a mile in their shoes, and roll a mile in their wheels. Maybe we could bring a few scheduling folks out with us while we're at it. 

Drivers need to be trained and retrained  in deescalation techniques. Drivers need strategies to diffuse, externalize, and refocus disputes away from the nose and ribs. The psychology of assault needs to be explained in detail, and drivers need to be open to using advanced techniques to deal with irate and irrational people. If you want to be a professional, and want to tell everyone you're a professional, then you need to learn the part of the trade beyond maneuvering forty feet of metal around a curb.

Where deescalation fails, drivers need self defense training. One of the casualties of light rail was the demolition of the OC Transpo dojo on Belfast. There used to be a gym with a floor space and mats. That's gone now. The company never really used that facility to its potential, where we could have trained drivers to protect themselves. Self defense training should be mandatory in an industry with an assault ratio as appalling as ours.

Buses need cameras. Good ones. Taxis were mandated by the city to install cameras because of security. Buses were outfitted with stickers saying that some buses were equipped with cameras. Obviously, the city feels that cameras would make a difference. If taxis are more secure, and stickers prevent some kinds of mischief, does it not stand to reason that actual cameras are a needed part of the solution? The double deckers came with factory cameras. They do not record. Cameras would record the face of the problem. 

Once the cameras identify an assault, we need to publish these pictures. We need to see the face of these bullies over and over again. We need to hear about them when they are caught. We need to hear what the consequences of their action are. We need to advertise this. I shouldn't have to explain why. 

Buses are already equipped with a silent alarm. Buses should also be equipped with a very loud audible alarm. Some situations need the direct attention of everyone around us. People will step in if they hear a cry for help.

Lastly, we need to get our force of Special Constables out from their conferences under the bridges and onto our buses in the most visible way possible. That entire police force should be riding our buses in uniform to the benefit of everyone who rides transit. 

Put all of this together, and we have a strategy to fight the bullies. 

This city needs to go beyond what other cities are doing. This city needs to take a leadership role in the transit industry, a role that other cities can follow instead of simply working the status quo and waiting for the next assault.

Step up, Ottawa. We need action.


  1. Reading this post saddens me — since moving to Ottawa from Victoria, I've been surprised by the animosity towards bus drivers that so many residents of this city seem to feel. I had no idea that assaults against drivers were so common; it is terrible. Thank you for posting this, hopefully it will increase awareness of this problem. I'll share a link to this post with my Twitter followers.

  2. Welcome back! Thank you for another post that is a true sound of reason - seems like its getting a little harder to find these days.