NYC Bus Drivers Plead For Protection From Assaults

NEW YORK (AP) -

Fare increases. Route cuts. General frustration over life. In New York City, there is no shortage of reasons why bus drivers are targeted for assault — an average of 88 attacks every year in the nation’s largest bus system.

Jose Rondon’s 27-year career as a driver came to an abrupt end last summer at a stop in the Bronx, when a man punched him repeatedly without warning, breaking his nose and bloodying his face.

“He managed to pretty much pummel me,” Rondon said. “No driver deserves that — no driver.”

To protect its 12,000 drivers, the Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to upgrade buses with surveillance cameras and floor-to-ceiling partitions that separate operators from passengers. Officials say about a quarter of the 5,700-bus fleet have gotten the upgrades so far, which cost at least $2,000 per bus, and the MTA hopes to double that number by 2015.

But the bus operators’ union says the MTA is dragging its heels, and even its projected installations are not enough.

“We share their frustration,” said Stephen Vidal, vice president of transportation, safety and training for the MTA bus department. “We’re actually trying to turn a fleet that had no barriers into a fleet with them. That’s a big challenge. … I wish we were further along than we are, but I think we’re at a point now where we have a critical path.”

The MTA says it has been keeping detailed data on assaults only since 2010, a date that drivers point out coincides with some of the MTA’s most severe service cuts in decades. Thirty-six bus routes and 570 stops were eliminated, as well as three subway lines. Those cuts, drivers say, contributed to an increase in delays and tension among passengers.

Bus operators in New York work at all hours in all neighborhoods, alone and often with little protection. One driver, Edwin Thomas, was stabbed to death in Brooklyn in 2008 after a disagreement with a passenger. Over the Fourth of July weekend, three operators were assaulted, two with knives.

The MTA also logs 1,000 annual incidents of harassment, including verbal abuse and spitting. While state law provides drivers with a special “protected status,” with assaults punishable by up to seven years in prison, there is little they can do to defend themselves against aggressive passengers.

“I felt that this could happen again, and I was wary of everything that was going on around me,” Rondon said. “You can’t operate a bus that way.”