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Government and Politics

RTA is looking at ways to keep its bus drivers and passengers safer
There's been an increease in driver assaults since a bus fight video went viral

Kevin Niedermier
An RTA bus pulling up to a stop on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland.
Courtesy of Kevin Niedermier
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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. As 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.

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Plexi-glass driver shields, tougher laws, enhanced driver training, and more on-board cameras and police are some of the possibilities RTA is considering. Over the last 5years more than 80 RTA drivers have reported being spit-on, punched or pelted with objects. So far this year there’ve 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.

“There were numerous attacks before Art Hughes and numerous attacks after him.  But Hughes shouldn’t have been terminated as an example because he was defending himself. There was nothing in place for him to go by, except to proceed on.  Nobody knows what they would have done when that lady spit on him. We now need to defuse the situation and move on, and if we have things in place to protect the drives and passengers I believe we can deter these attacks on drivers.”

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 up-tick in incidents, which he says could be caused by September’s viral video fight.

“Statistically, it seems like it when the video went viral. We have people out here who don’t think like you or I or your viewers, they say, hey, maybe that looks like fun. We’ve seen a significant increase in attacks, four in the last month which is very unusual and could be copycat syndrome.”

But, Calabrese says RTA wants to nip it in the bud and started working on safety improvements after the video-tape uproar.

“First of all educating our employees how to better deal with difficult passengers. Second, educating the public on what’s expected of them on RTA. And third, having laws with stronger teeth, and maybe making it possible for people to lose the privilege of riding RTA if they continually misbehave.”

A bill in the Ohio legislature would make assaulting a driver a felony

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.

“I don’t believe R.T.A’s administration has approached this situation in the right way. First, there should be zero tolerance for assaults on drivers and passengers, and R.T.A. should assist in prosecuting attackers. Second, every bus needs a camera. I think driver shields and stiffer criminal penalties are lesser responses that should come later.”

RTA could spend about $1.6 million to equip all its buses with cameras 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.                     

“We have a number of buses with camera systems. On some of the older buses the cameras work, but they don’t record, but we’re in the process of replacing them. Money doesn’t grow on trees, we try to put our money into serving the public and safety is very important to us, and if we feel there’s a better system we’ll find a way to fund it. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. They don’t sell these shields at Sears Hardware if we go in that direction, but if we do, we’ll figure out how to pay for it.”

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.

Riders see fights on buses but most are afraid to use the bus

One of the riders is Berdon Mills. He says he uses the bus a lot and feels safe.  

“I’ve seen situations, but they’ve never scared me because I mind my own business. I don’t have a problem with what other people do, unless it’s really violent or vulgar I might jump in, 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.

“The whole situation was crazy, I can’t really what he should have done, but before it got to that point he should have thrown her off the bus instead of arguing with her. Everything is fine, I keep to myself and don’t get involved with the arguments on the bus, but I just feel that if everyone respected each other it would be smooth sailing for everybody.”

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