COVID-19 partly to blame for increase in assaults on Saskatoon transit drivers

Saskatoon Transit operators reported 130 "negative interactions" with passengers last year, well above the 76 recorded in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic is thought to be at least partly responsible for a sharp increase in the number of “negative interactions” Saskatoon transit drivers reported last year.

New data from city hall shows that city bus drivers reported 130 such events in 2020, almost double the 76 recorded in 2019, and well above the 51 each in 2018 and 2017.

Across all four years, those numbers include 37 physical assaults — including nine outside of buses, “mostly” at the downtown terminal — plus 20 “bodily fluid” incidents, 48 “acts of aggression,” 54 fare disputes and 72 intoxicated riders.

Eight incidents of road rage involving other drivers were reported, and five instances of sexual harassment. The overwhelming majority of reports, 155, were classified as “verbal altercations,” an administration report states.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615 president Darcy Pederson said he suspects the increase last year is attributable to the effects of COVID-19, and the resulting restrictions, on everyone.

“Everything that’s taken place in 2020 has just put so much pressure on everybody, and it shows, right?” Pederson said.

“People were obviously having confrontations with operators, whether it be over fares or verbal altercations over masks. All that stuff. They get fed up and they take it out on the operator.”

Saskatoon Transit director Jim McDonald said the yearly increases are attributable to the pandemic, as well as the transit service placing a greater emphasis on drivers reporting incidents.

“COVID sets off a whole bunch of different levels of frustration in people,” McDonald said.

McDonald and Pederson said they’re optimistic that the installation of enclosed compartments for drivers on some buses in the coming months will reduce the number of physical altercations.

Late last year, city council allocated $500,000 to begin outfitting buses with the compartments, with the aim of retrofitting the entire fleet of about 140 buses beginning in 2022.

ATU Local 615 had been pushing for the enclosures, and city councillors agreed. McDonald said the first compartments are expected to be installed beginning in the fall.

He said Saskatoon Transit trains its drivers in de-escalation techniques and empathy, but suggested it’s probably unrealistic to expect the compartments will prevent every negative interaction.

Pederson offered a similar assessment, but emphasized that they will prevent the most serious situations, which involve physical assaults or bodily fluids.

“They will stop at the shield.”

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