A bill proposing to amend the Criminal Code of Canada to take violence against transit operators into consideration may result in stiffer penalties against those who assault bus and taxi drivers.
Introduced in May by Senator Bob Runciman, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (Assaults Against Public Transit Workers), or Bill S-221, which passed its third reading in the Senate on September 24, would amend section 269 of the Code so that courts imposing sentences for assaults against transit operators must consider the fact that the victim of the offence was a public-transit operator performing his or her duty as an aggravating circumstance. It applies to drivers of buses (including school buses and intercity coaches), paratransit vehicles, taxis, subways, streetcars and ferries.
“I am optimistic that it is going to be dealt with in a timely way,” says senator Runciman from Ottawa. The Conservative expresses confidence that Liberals and NDP members in the House will approve his bill. “I think we have essentially all-party support. I would be surprised if we didn’t.”
Members of Parliament have introduced similar bills regarding transit-worker safety in the past, but none of these bills became law. Last year’s attempts included C-531, sponsored by NDP parliament member John Rafferty, and C-533, authored by Liberal Ralph Goodale.
Unifor has been a staunch advocate of S-221. Representatives of the union endorsed the bill before the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in Ottawa in June. Also supporting the bill is the Amalgamated Transit Union Canadian Council (ATUCC), based in Rexdale, Ontario.
“It is an important and significant tool,” says ATUCC director Mike Mahar. “It is only one tool in a multitude of things that we have put in place.”
An incident in Ottawa spurred Runciman to take action against violence directed at transit operators last year. A man assaulted an OC Transpo bus driver who was on the job, then dragged him out onto the street and continued beating him. The driver could not return to work for months because of his injuries, but the perpetrator got away with a suspended sentence, despite having 17 previous assault convictions.
Runciman believes that this kind of incident poses a broader public safety hazard — one that “not only jeopardizes the driver,” but “also endangers the other passengers on the bus and people in cars who are driving by the bus and pedestrians on sidewalks.”
Mahar feels that driving a bus, streetcar or taxi in Canada is becoming more dangerous, and he attributes this to a number of factors. “Society itself, the way that they are shifting, they are not taking responsibility for their fellow man, if you will. But the systems have changed, the pace of public transportation is so much heavier, and the funding, of course, is always a challenge.” When customers get frustrated with service disruptions, which often result from budget cuts, some take their anger out on the drivers, Mahar suggests.
Danny Nicholson, senior communications advisor with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), notes that bus and streetcar drivers in Toronto face frequent attacks from riders. “A lot of the assaults are things like spitting, punching, even throwing drinks or water or coffee,” he says. But more serious assaults happen too.
“We had one employee tragically murdered a number of years ago. He was a collector,” Nicholson says. He cites a bus driver who was shot in Scarborough several years ago and could no longer drive because the shooting impaired his vision. The perpetrator was sentenced to eight years in jail.
Like Mahar, Nicholson is hopeful that the amendment would deter violence. “If that results in stiffer penalties, then somebody may think twice before punching or spitting at one of our operators over a fare dispute or an invalid transfer.”
Matthew Friedberg, criminal defence lawyer with Toronto firm Caramanna Friedberg, believes that S-221, if passed, will beget tougher sentences by making the victim’s profession an aggravating factor. “This doesn’t leave any discretion to the judge,” he notes. “As it works its way through the system, it may get watered down and the language may change.”
But whether the amendment discourages people from violence against transit operators is a trickier question. “That really would come down to whether you accept general deterrence as a philosophically valid purpose of sentencing,” Friedberg explains. “If you accept the notion that people who commit these sorts of offences know about the law, think about the law when they are committing these offences and are motivated by the law, then yes. But those three propositions are very controversial assumptions.”
Friedberg thinks that the amendment will give transit employees a stronger sense of security. “They may feel safer,” he suggests, “which may have a social value in and of itself.”
Another politician trying to improve transit workers’ safety is Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, who announced new policies for the city’s taxi industry in June, with plans to install security cameras, global-positioning-satellite locators and black boxes in cabs. The measures were in response to the murder of cab driver Ziad Bouzid in November 2013.
Runciman says the changes will help beef up cabbie safety in Montreal, but may not necessarily prevent violent crimes. “Whatever they can do to improve safety, I would be supportive of. But at the same time, they have got to do things that are practical, in terms of cost.”
In Toronto, Nicholson reports that the TTC has installed protective barriers on buses and streetcars. “We have installed closed-circuit security [cameras] on all of our vehicles now, so if somebody assaults one of our operators on a vehicle, the chances of them getting caught are going to be very good.”
Friedberg suggests that another piece of legislation — a non-criminal law requiring transit employers to provide a minimum amount of protection — might be helpful, since S-221 imposes no consequences on employers for lack of due diligence. “I don’t necessarily see an employer wanting to be motivated to provide more protection simply because of this amendment,” he says. “It is just a sentencing provision.”
Mahar says the ATUCC has made promoting S-221 a priority. “We have partnered up with other like-minded groups.” He cites meetings with more than 100 lawmakers, Members of Parliament and senators.
In the meantime, the TTC has launched a marketing campaign discouraging customers from violence, in addition to the aforementioned security improvements. It has also organized a staff committee to deal with employee assaults and assigned court advocates to lobby for tougher sentences. As a result, Nicholson claims, assaults against TTC drivers have decreased from two to one per day in recent years.
“People see the posters saying that if you assault one of our operators and get caught, we are going to ask for the toughest penalties possible,” he says.
Jeff Cottrill is editorial assistant of OHS CANADA.
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|Driven to Violence
The incident that prompted Bill S-221, in which an Ottawa bus driver was brutally beaten by a passenger with a history of assault convictions, is far from unique in the Canadian public-transit industry.
According to Mike Mahar, director of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canadian Council in Rexdale, Ontario, more than 2,000 assaults against bus drivers occur across the country every year. More than 40 per cent of bus drivers have experienced some form of assault.
The following are some instances of violence perpetrated against transit operators in the past two years:
• July 2014: A bus driver in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia was attacked and knocked unconscious by three young men, after trying to break up a fight on the vehicle.
• March 2014: Three women ganged up on a bus driver in Vancouver, pulling her hair, yanking her to the floor and punching her, after she had asked them to leave the bus for drinking and being disruptive.
• July 2013: A passenger repeatedly punched the operator of a moving bus in Kelowna, British Columbia, breaking his jaw, because the driver would not stop at a non-designated spot.
• March 2013: Two cab drivers in Toronto were stabbed by passengers in unrelated incidents within the same week in Toronto. A third was strangled by another rider.