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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Tough-on-crime Tories should back Goodale’s bill seeking protection for bus drivers Add to ...

My friend Steve was a bus driver for 32 years. Like most transit operators, he got late shifts on the most undesirable runs when he first started out. And those routes took him and his passengers through the worst parts of downtown Vancouver.

“It wasn’t much fun,” he recalled this week. “I often had a Perrier bottle nearby just in case. You would go to work with a sick feeling in your stomach because you knew what was ahead of you.

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“You knew that there was a good chance you were going to face a difficult situation. Sometimes you’d get people who were on some kind of drug and honestly, they’d look like they wanted to kill someone. That’s why a lot of us went to work scared.”

And still do.

Bus driver is one of the most stressful jobs you’ll find. You’re constantly dealing with members of the public, a percentage of whom are trouble. Often they include teens who’ve had too much to drink and want to show off to friends. Increasingly, they are people with serious mental-health issues who have violent tendencies.

Meantime, bus drivers mostly remain defenceless and vulnerable to attack, despite a raft of measures introduced in recent years to make them less so.

Just this week, a driver in Surrey was punched in the face by a passenger for no reason. The victim was taken to hospital to receive treatment for a broken nose. This follows an assault on a female bus driver a few weeks earlier. In that case, the operator was jumped by three young women who dragged her by the hair before kicking and punching her. The driver suffered several cuts, lost chunks of hair and had her glasses smashed.

Just another fun day on the job.

The assaults have led the Canadian Urban Transit Association, of which TransLink is a member, to renew its call for tougher sentences for people who attack bus drivers.

It’s something the association has been demanding for years with little success.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has introduced a private member’s bill, C-533, which calls for changes to the Criminal Code that would see harsher punishment handed out to those who attack an on-duty transit worker. The association has also made its case to Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

This would seem to be an issue, a cause, that would be a natural for the governing, tough-on-crime Conservatives. There are few Canadians who would disagree with bringing the hammer down hard on those who attack our bus drivers, people who perform an important but thankless job.

Personally, I don’t understand our tolerance for such conduct. Someone who assaults a bus driver should never just walk away with probation or community service. Not a chance. There have to be repercussions far greater than that.

Transit authorities across the country, including TransLink, have taken measures in recent years to make the job environment safer for drivers. These include security cameras, transit police occasionally travelling on buses, and buzzers that allow drivers to make panic calls in the event of an emergency.

Still, these haven’t stopped attacks. There have been 42 reported assaults on bus drivers so far this year in MetroVancouver. Across the country, nearly 2,000 drivers were attacked or assaulted in some way in 2012.

My friend Steve retired a couple of years ago but stays in touch with old colleagues still on the job. He feels for them, even ones on so-called good routes where the likelihood of seeing menacing customers walk up the steps of your bus is much lower.

“Even when I got better runs I still had to deal with problem riders,” he said. “Maybe not as many as earlier in my career but they’re everywhere. They really are. I think something has to be done to better protect the drivers.”

He thinks putting drivers behind Plexiglas cages is inevitable, sad as that is to envision. But he’d also like to see far tougher sentences for those who abuse his former colleagues, many of whom are women less likely to be able to defend themselves against aggressive acts by bigger, stronger men.

“We need to say, as a society,” said Steve, “that we won’t tolerate this kind of violence.That’s a message that we have to send. Just have to.”

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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