Cleveland’s RTA is considering more safety measures on buses following a series of fights between a drivers and passengers. A video of the most prominent brawl went viral on the internet in September and led to charges against the driver and passenger. For Ohio Public Radio, WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier reports, the reaction to the apparent increase in bus driver assaults and bad behavior on buses overall, will take time and money.
Plexi-glass driver shields, tougher laws, enhanced driver training, and more on-board cameras and police are some of the possibilities RTA is considering or implementing. Over the last five years more than 80 RTA drivers have reported being spit-on, punched or pelted with objects. So far this year there have been 25 assaults compared to just eleven all of last year. These numbers became a bigger issue after the recent video-taped fight that led to driver Artis Hughes being fired because he punched an irate passenger. Huges has been fired, but his union is challenging that. Driver’s union president William Nix says its open season on drivers.
NIX: “There were numerous attacks before Art Hughes and there are numerous attacks after Art Hughes. Brother Hughes shouldn’t have an example in being terminated because he was defending himself. He didn't have nothing in place for him to go by, except to proceed on. And that means -- nobody knows what they would have done when that young lady spit on him or hit him...We now need to defuse the situation and try to move on, and if we have things in place to protect the operator and the passengers I believe we can deter people from attacking the operator.”
Several safety enhancement options are being considered
Nix wants RTA to install plexi-glass shields around the drivers to protect them. It’s a million-dollar option RTA is considering. Drivers in other cities where the shields are used give mixed reviews because of the devices can make it harder to see to drive. RTA General Manager Joe Calabrese says riding the buses and trains is safe for passengers, with only one driver assault occurring for every 80,000 rides. But Calabrese acknowledges a recent uptick in incidents, which he says could be caused by September’s viral video fight.
CALABRESE: “Statistically, it seems like it does. I think that the video went viral. We have people out here who don’t think like you and I, don't think like most of your viewers, and say, 'Hey, maybe that looks like fun.' But we did see a significant increase. There's been four in the last month, which is very unusual. It could be copycat syndrome.”
But, Calabrese says RTA wants to nip it in the bud and started working on safety improvements after the videotape uproar.
CALABRESE: “First of all, education. Educating our employees on how better to deal with passengers that may be difficult. Secondly, it's educating the public on what we expect of them on RTA. And thirdly, having legislation with stronger teeth. And maybe, part of that legislation, not just increasing penalties for people who commit crimes on RTA, but actually allowing them to lose their privilege of using RTA if it's continuous. So those are some of the things."
Calabrese believes the state legislature should pass a bill that would increase the charge for assaulting a transit worker from a low level misdemeanor to a fifth degree felony. Many people are calling the RTA to start banning disruptive passengers, including Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson. He came away from a meeting between council and RTA this week, unimpressed with the transit systems’ reaction to the safety issue.
JOHNSON: “I don’t believe that the RTA administration has approached this situation in the right way. I think number one, prosecution -- there should be zero tolerance for assaults or attacks against passengers or drivers. They should be assisting in the prosecution of that, assisting the city prosecutor, the county prosecutor. Second, I think every bus need to have cameras. We need to be able to document whatever goes on on buses. I think those are the first two steps. Shields and enhanced penalties, I don't think those are the first initial things that we need."
RTA could spend about $1.6 million to equip all its buses with cameras by the end of 2013 if that’s a viable safety option, according to Calabrese. Right now, about 140 of RTA’s 450 buses have cameras, but many of those don’t work.
CALABRESE: “We have a number of buses with camera systems. On some of the buses we have -- on the older buses we have camera systems. Although the cameras are functional, the recording devices are not. And we're in the process of replacing them right now. Money does not grow on trees. We try to put our money into providing service to the public. Safety is extremely important to us. If we feel there’s a better system we will figure out a way to fund it. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. They go to Sears Hardware and buy these shields if that's the direction in which we take. It will take a while to find the money to order the units to get a competitive low bid to put together specifications. I'm sure there will be different shields for the six different types of buses that we have. So it's a process. But if we decide that's the way we'll go forward, we'll figure it all out."
On a weekday afternoon, passengers are boarding an RTA bus at Public Square. Inside the bus, RTA spokeswoman Mary Shaffer says these riders are among the 200,000 who take the system’s buses and trains each week.
SHAFFER: "Over the last 18 months, we've seen ridership increase every month. People are making the decision to ride the bus or the train instead of driving. Obviously, this is a green endeavor. It's a very safe endeavor. We're on the Health Line right now, and full of people, middle of the day. And lots of people are taking advantage of the great service that is offered."
One of the riders is Berdon Mills. He says he uses the bus a lot and feels safe.
MILLS: “I’ve seen situations, but they’ve never scared me because I mind my business. I don’t have a problem with whatever the people do, unless it’s something real real violent or vulgar, then I might jump in there. But otherwise I just mind my business.”
Fellow passenger Jessica Cunningham of Euclid also feels safe, and says the encounter that led to the famous video-taped fight should not have gotten to that point.
CUNNINGHAM: “The whole situation was crazy. I can’t really what he should have done, I feel before it got to that point he should have put her off the bus instead of sit there and argue with her. Everything is fine, I kind of keep to myself on the bus. I don't get into all the arguments and stuff, but I just feel that if everyone respected each other it, could just be pretty smooth sailing for everybody.”