The union representing HSR bus drivers is concerned about confrontations with riders.

The union representing HSR bus drivers is concerned about confrontations with riders.

Two drivers were physically hauled off of their buses.

One operator wrestled a drunk attacker for his lunch. Another was struck with a coiled steel cable. A driver who left his bus on a break was followed into Eastgate Square by an angry rider and beaten with a payphone.

Those assaults number among the most serious of 84 incidents reported by HSR bus drivers over the last three years, according to the union for city transit workers.

About half of reported assaults are verbal threats, said Eric Tuck, vice-president of Local 107 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“The serious physical assaults used to be pretty rare, but in recent years we seem to be seeing them more and more,” said Tuck, pointing to a driver who was dragged off his bus and beaten by a group of teens two weeks ago. Police have laid four charges in that case.

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“We take the threats very seriously, too, because it’s not like you can hide … If you drive the same route again and again, people know where to find you.”

The city listed 84 assaults reported by bus drivers over the past three years in response to a Freedom of Information request, but wouldn’t hand over specific incident reports because of a labour relations hearing slated for September. Access-to-information law allows the city to withhold records that will be used in court or an arbitration hearing.

Tuck said 31 incidents reported last year ranged from spitting to coffee-throwing to punching.

“It could be anything from a book (a rider is) holding to a cup of coffee to a phone,” he said. “One driver was hit with a coil of cable someone was carrying.”

The attacks helped spur a union grievance that will be heard in a Sept. 7 hearing. The union will ask an arbitrator to order the city to beef up the bus budget, arguing riders blame drivers for poor service.

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Tuck said many of the physical confrontations involve youth. He said the union is talking about the possibility of a targeted bus safety campaign in local schools.

City transit director Don Hull said he is gathering detailed statistics on crimes against bus drivers that will be shared with council in the next two weeks, but added the annual number of assaults reported is “fairly static.”

Hull pointed to fare disputes, not poor service, as the main trigger.

“We’re spending more time on conflict avoidance training for all of our drivers,” he said.

Many transit agencies in large communities have installed cameras on buses to discourage violence, including Waterloo Region and London. Some cities are also experimenting with shatterproof driver “shields.”

Hull said Hamilton is evaluating the experiences of other cities with bus cameras and a capital request to outfit the city’s 225 buses could come in 2013 or 2014.

Eric Gillespie, who heads Grand River Transit, said Waterloo Region budgeted about $1.7 million over two years to install cameras on 218 buses. His drivers reported 12 assaults and threats last year.

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