A veteran bus driver who spent Tuesday night in hospital after he was assaulted at the Edmonds bus loop in Burnaby says he is putting his life on the line every night shift – and his employer's escalating campaign to place drivers behind plastic shields is not making him feel safer.
Charles Dixon, 54, suffered his 14th assault in 25 years as a bus driver after he asked a young man to re-enter the vehicle through the front doors. Mr. Dixon said the man punched him in the head, which broke his right cheekbone and bruised his eye. Mr. Dixon's 23-year-old son was on the bus and caught the assailant with the help of other passengers.
Surrey RCMP confirmed that they arrested a 21-year-old man from Burnaby and are recommending assault charges.
"I might have an invisible sign on my neck saying 'punch me,' 'kill me,' " Mr. Dixon said in a broken voice after he was released from hospital. "The company doesn't do enough to protect people like me. I'm a number to them. I'm 39426."
Coast Mountain Bus Company plans to launch a pilot project jointly with the local bus drivers' union to install plastic half-shields around the drivers' seats on buses. The shields are designed to prevent drivers from getting punched or spat on, which are just some of the dangers they face.
"There's going to be someone killed here," said Rick Claybo, Coast Mountain assault analyst. "We've had some pretty serious assaults."
Gavin Davies, vice-president of Canadian Auto Workers 111, said the design for the shield is complete and a stationary exhibit that the drivers will be able to test in a few weeks is being built. The shields will be mandatory on all buses if the majority of the drivers vote in favour of them, although it could take a year or more to have them installed.
TransLink would pay for the project and set a price tag after receiving the bus drivers' support, the company's public information officer Drew Snider said.
Mr. Dixon is not convinced the company will be able to pay for the project, or, in any case, that a plastic shield would protect him from verbal or physical assault.
"You put a shield around us, now the driver is going to feel like an animal in the Stanley Park Zoo," Mr. Dixon said. "Someone will rap on the plastic and yell, 'Hey animal, how does it feel?'"
Coast Mountain previously proposed installing full shields around drivers' seats, but abandoned the project in 2010 after the majority of the drivers it polled rejected the idea. They complained about the glare from the shields and the difficulty of talking to passengers across a plastic barrier.
"Our members still enjoy interacting with the public and we don't have that fear [of the public]yet," Mr. Davies said. "Our members are nowhere near ready to be cut off."
The number of assaults on bus drivers has gone down in recent years from 242 reported in 2006 to 118 in 2010, after Coast Mountain installed video surveillance cameras on its trolley buses and started to install cameras on 500 diesel buses, Mr. Claybo said.
A disproportionate number of these assaults occurred in Downtown Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and Burnaby.
Although Mr. Dixon's regular shift runs until 3 a.m. in the higher risk Burnaby area, his bus still does not have a camera. He said he's endured a fair share of bad treatment from his passengers over the years. An elderly woman hit him in the head with an umbrella after he referred to her as a senior. Another passenger doused him with a vanilla shake near Empire Field a few years ago.
He still gets choked up when he remembers how a skateboarder in his 20s boarded his bus and threatened to kill him. Mr. Dixon was rushed to St. Paul's Hospital with chest pains. Eight days later, the doctors discovered he had a spontaneous dissection of the coronary artery, a rare and usually fatal disease.
Coast Mountain representatives did not visit him in hospital in 2005, Mr. Dixon said, and he feels they are ignoring him after Tuesday's attack.
"We would feel so much better if the company actually showed us some compassion," he said. "I want them to treat me as a human being."