It's a nightmare many bus drivers in the city have lived through -- being spat upon by an irate customer disputing a $2.75 fare.
Don Brown has been driving a bus for close to two decades and has heard plenty of horror stories from his fellow drivers about angry passengers cursing a blue streak, pulling weapons, throwing punches or worse. But one act hits the hardest.
"Being spit on really degrades them," he said. "And it's really filthy. Some of them have had to be taken to the hospital to get checked [for diseases]
"It just makes them feel horrible."
The problem of assaults on drivers has been a thorn in the Toronto Transit Commission's side for some time. The dispute was cited as one of the factors in this past May's day-long wildcat strike that forced the transit commission to shut down its entire system, which carries 800,000 people a day.
TTC management has responded by stepping up efforts to get a number of safety measures rolling. The newest, and one that most passengers haven't yet seen, is a barrier designed to shield drivers from potential attacks.
Made of half-inch-thick transparent Lexan -- a polycarbonate material more durable than Plexiglas -- the barrier can be opened or closed to separate driver from passenger. It rises from about the middle of the driver's ankle to a couple of feet below the bus ceiling, with a small cluster of holes acting as a speaker box.
"You can't even really notice it," 54-year-old Mr. Brown said as he drove bus 7425 along an Eglinton route this week. "There's a lot of air around it still. Most drivers will appreciate it."
Mr. Brown was test-driving an advanced prototype. The goal is to have a bulk of the transit commission's 1,750 buses and streetcars outfitted with a final model by the end of the year.
Most passengers who rode Mr. Brown's bus seemed quite receptive to the concept.
Lindsey Irvine, 23, said she has seen transit drivers attacked on numerous occasions, usually over something fairly insignificant.
"I've seen them get into fights. I've seen them get spat on," she said.
"Someone will come on with a transfer that's a week old and get angry when they can't use it."
She supports the added layer of protection for operators. "Police have guns. Why can't [transit drivers]have something to stop them from getting attacked?"
Fifty-year-old Eli Maramba also lauded the idea as a positive step toward improving safety both for drivers and for other passengers, who may end up getting involved if a dispute breaks out.
"But as long as drivers are protected by this," he said, pointing to the barrier, "people will think twice before they attack."
On average, 350 to 400 cases of assaults on TTC operators occur each year, ranging from verbal abuse and threats to customers pushing, spitting on or throwing things at drivers, said Bob Boutilier, deputy general manager of the transit commission.
And sometimes a far more serious physical assault occurs. In late 2005, driver Jason Pereira was shot in the face at a Scarborough bus stop.
Another incident in 2004 saw driver Jowell (Bobby) Lowe viciously punched and stomped on by two attackers over a fare dispute. He was later deemed unable to work.
These days, Mr. Brown worries each time he pulls up to a stop. "You don't know who's there. Are they going to put their money in the fare box, or do something worse? Have they been waiting [for the bus]for a while and gotten really mad?"
At about $1,500 apiece, the type of barrier the TTC is testing is still quite new. Researching transit strategies in other regions of the world, Mr. Boutilier said, he was unable to locate another city that has implemented such a system, although a firm in California was working on developing a similar product. Some large cities, such as Winnipeg and Vancouver, have also looked into the option but have not yet taken action.
Mr. Brown, who serves on the health and safety committee that has been testing the barriers, said he will feel a greater comfort level knowing that he has this added level of security, even though he probably won't need to use it on many of his daytime routes, which run through quiet neighbourhoods.
Many of his colleagues, especially those who drive more dangerous routes -- such as the Yonge line that runs into the wee hours -- will be even more appreciative.
"Sitting around the division table, you hear guys talking. Just a couple of days ago, a guy had a knife pulled on him," Mr. Brown said.
While there was a significant jump in assaults from 1999 to 2003 -- 31 per cent -- the number has remained fairly steady in recent years. TTC statistics show 357 assaults on transit staff in 2005, a slight drop from 376 in 2003.
On average, at least one operator reports an assault each day, Mr. Boutilier said, while scores more go unreported. About 3,900 operators are employed by the transit commission.
Mr. Brown expressed a hint of remorse that Toronto has come to the point that measures like a barrier are necessary. "If this was the perfect city, we wouldn't need all this," he remarked. "But unfortunately, it isn't."