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To reduce attacks on bus drivers, Metro looks to other industries for ideas

Morning commuters look for bus connections at the New Carrollton Metro station in Hyattsville, Md. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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This post has been updated.

After making only modest gains in reducing attacks on bus drivers, even after taking steps such as putting in plexiglass barriers by many drivers, Metro says it’s going to try thinking outside the box.

It has sought bids to evaluate whether “ideas on other approaches from other industries can reduce the dozens of attacks a year on bus drivers,” said Sherri Ly, a spokeswoman for the transit agency.

Ly wouldn’t venture guesses on what ideas could come. The point “is to look for solutions that haven’t been thought of yet,” she said.

The bids were due Jan. 4. But unlike the Trump administration, Metro would not say who has expressed interest or how many bids it has received. Ly said the information could be available through a public disclosure request if a contract is awarded.

Metro’s search for fresh ideas comes as it appears to be struggling to prevent a rise in sometimes shocking attacks on bus drivers, despite its efforts. In 2017, a woman was jailed after urinating in a cup and throwing it at a driver on an X2 bus. In May, the union representing Metro workers said a man, apparently enraged when a bus pulled away at Braddock Road without him, got on a Metrorail train, took it three stops to Huntington station, found the driver and punched her in the face.

Metro has tried a number of things. As of Dec. 2, protective shields between drivers and boarding passengers had been installed on two-thirds of Metro’s 1,583 buses, and Ly said all buses should have shields by June.

It has also installed security cameras and silent alarms on all buses. A public relations campaign also tried to convey that drivers are ordinary people. Last January, a peer-review panel created by the American Public Transportation Association examined Metro’s efforts and reported that it has incorporated many of the industry’s best practices.

But assaults against drivers skyrocketed from 70, between January and early December 2016, to 92 in all of 2017. And despite Metro’s efforts, it made no progress in 2018, when there were again 92 assaults — more than a quarter higher than in 2016.

In comparison, King County Metro, which serves Seattle and its suburbs, was lauded by APTA in May after reducing assaults on its operators by 53 percent since 2008. King County has about the same number of bus riders as Metro.

Carroll Thomas, vice president of ATU Local 689, the local union representing Metro workers, said that not enough police patrol buses and that the shields being installed do not make drivers feel safe.

“Assaults are still up. There have been visible incidents like the one involving the urine,” he said. “There are riders who are using different drugs, have mental illnesses. I don’t know how many times a day our drivers face verbal abuse.”

As Metro tries to find answers, some, like Polly Hanson, former chief of Metro’s transit police and now APTA’s director of security risk and emergency management, praise the effort to come up with fresh ideas.

But Brian Sherlock, safety officer for the national Amalgamated Transit Union, scoffed at the notion of looking at other industries for ideas. “How about copying the best practice in ours?” said Sherlock, who has been advocating for better shields in the U.S.

The clear shields installed by Metro and other transit agencies are to the right of drivers, but leave a wide gap between the forward edge and the windshield.

“They’re terrible,” he said. “You can still reach around and clock somebody.”

Ride Metrobus? You’ll soon start hearing audio ads on your ride.

Other transit agencies have been retrofitting buses with barriers that completely protect drivers. Ones being installed in Minnesota rise when drivers feel they’re in trouble. Ones in Kansas City look more like a clear door. Sherlock, though, says that because they’re installed on buses not designed for them, drivers are cramped. He prefers European buses, which are roomier for drivers.

Though Metro says it has increased police patrols on buses, Thomas said their presence is spotty. Indeed, APTA’s peer review report noted: “There is a gap between the expectations of bus/rail operations personnel and the actual number of police personnel available for deployment.”

Dave Jutilla, chief of King County Metro’s transit police and a member of the panel that reviewed WMATA’s practices, said in an interview that one key to reducing assaults is out of Metro’s hands.

Attacking bus drivers is a felony in Seattle. The bus system there is able to bar violent passengers for a year. It does allow, after an appeal process, for them to ride specific routes at certain times if they can show they have to get to appointments such as for mental health care or drug treatment.

Unlike Seattle’s system, Metro does not have the authority to bar people from riding the system.

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