MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Last month, the Memphis Area Transit Authority announced it was installing driver shields on two buses as part of a test to see whether they’re effective. The action came after the city’s bus operators’ union vocalized concerns about violence toward drivers on buses.
“Times being the way they are, we felt the need to address the issue,” said Micheal Wilson, business agent with Transit Union Local 713, the group that represents bus drivers.
He said union leadership spent most of 2019 putting the heat on MATA to look into bus shields. Wilson said their campaign included meeting with elected city and county leaders.
“The bus shields have been in the industry for a while, and at the request of some of our employees, we are expanding our look at bus shields,” said MATA CEO Gay Rosenfeld.
In early October, MATA officials held a demo showing off two bus shields being tested as part of a pilot program.
Drivers can open the protective windows and door with a handle, and the door weighs 75 pounds.
"It provides some prevention of anything being thrown at the bus operator or if somebody is trying to get physical with the bus operator. It should eliminate the potential in the vast number of potential incidents," Rosenfeld said.
MATA provided records since 2016 showing 11 incidents total where operators have been slapped, punched, kicked, spit on or forcibly removed from the driver’s seat.
WMC Action News 5 obtained video of three of those altercations from 2018 through a public records request with the agency.
In one incident, a driver and passenger go back and forth verbally, before the passenger spits on the driver once, then again as the incident turns physical.
In another case, a man comes on the bus and spits in the driver’s face.
And in the third clip, a passenger touches a driver on the leg, then the driver kicks him out and calls for help.
Wilson said operators who have driven the MATA buses with shields since the pilot program was announced largely approve. But they do have some concerns the shield may not be big enough.
“From the response that we have been getting, it’s been positive,” he said. “Whether it’s going to be able to cover enough of the driver (we’re not sure), where if there is an assault they would be protected.”
Bus shields are a topic of national conversation right now.
Officials in the Tampa area fast-tracked a plan to outfit all buses with shields after a bus driver’s throat was slit by a passenger in May. The driver, Thomas Dunn, pulled the bus over safely and then died.
In Minneapolis-St.Paul transportation officials outfitted 150 buses with protective shields in 2018 after a test phase. That came after a rise in the number of assaults on operators there.
MATA has not detailed how long its pilot program will last.
But CEO Gary Rosenfeld said last month the shields cost roughly $5,000 each with labor for installation on top of that. That means it would take at least $600,000 to outfit 120-fixed route buses in the fleet.
Union leaders said whether it’s outfitting the whole fleet or outfitting selected routes most dangerous for drivers, MATA needs to make shields permanent.
“Something definitely needs to take place,” Wilson said.