Virginia Delegate Delores McQuinn is sponsoring a bill that would increase the penalties for attacking bus drivers and other transit operators, reports Governing. The bill would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to assault a transit operator, and it would ban people who are convicted of those assaults from riding the bus for at least six months. Virginia could join more than 30 states that classify assaults on bus drivers and other transit operators as a special category of violation. The trend, which began years ago, has taken on a new urgency in light of a sharp uptick in attacks. According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the rate of attacks on transit operators increased more than 400 percent throughout the 2010s. The vulnerability of bus drivers and other transit workers has also been thrown into even sharper relief during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included a provision requiring large transit agencies to create safety plans for drivers. Big transit agencies will be required to keep more detailed accounts of those assaults under FTA rules that were finalized last month. That will help workers make the case for more safety improvements, says Jeff Rosenberg of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
The increasingly vulnerable working conditions have made it harder for transit agencies to attract and retain operators, contributing to a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, says Chris Van Eyken of TransitCenter. Beyond policing, agencies need to find ways to stop assaults before they happen, for example, by reducing the driver’s role in collecting fares, an interaction that’s one of the primary triggers for attacks. Beyond lawmaking, groups like the ATU are pushing for changes to the physical layout of buses to give drivers more protection, from disease as well as assaults. While ATU supports state laws that increase the penalties for people who assault transit operators, and that bar them from getting back on the bus, Rosenberg acknowledges that they’re not likely to stop attacks from happening. Even with warning signs posted on vehicles advertising the penalties for attacking transit workers, assaults tend to be spur-of-the-moment incidents in which the attackers aren’t thinking about consequences.