NewsChannel 3 Investigation: HRT bus driver beatdown

Posted at 11:00 AM, Apr 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-08 13:45:52-04

Hampton Roads, Va. - One unruly passenger can create commuter chaos on board a Hampton Roads Transit bus.

That's exactly what happened last month, when a driver was attacked during a scheduled run on the Peninsula.

It begins with a request denied. The driver tells the passenger he can't drop him off until they get to the bus stop, and gets attacked!

When passengers intervene they are attacked as well.

HRT Spokesman Tom Holden says in this case, the driver wasn't hurt.

"To my knowledge, no, but it's unsettling, we're always concerned about the safety and well-being of our operators," Holden says.

Which begs the question, how often are HRT drivers subjected to 'beat downs' or verbal abuse by passengers?

According to Hampton Roads Transit, from January 2013 to April 2015 - there were seven reported assaults on HRT operators, and 85 reports of verbal harassments or threats.

We asked, what is the protocol for drivers when faced with difficult or threatening passengers?

"The protocol is to do everything to deescalate the situation, and by that we mean talk down a little bit."

In the video above, the passenger clearly could not be reasoned with - what other options are there for drivers to protect themselves and passengers when faced with hostile riders?

"There are instances where people become a little more violent, and operators are trained to seek help, there is a button on the bus that allows them to reach out directly to dispatch."

According to Holden, when the button is pushed, dispatch can then hear everything that is happening on board the bus - and take action. Also, every bus is equipped with video surveillance.

But it's not perfect, unlike airplanes, in which unruly passengers are trapped on board to be arrested when the plane lands -- an assailant on board a bus can make a quick get away.

"Ideally, would prefer to have the person in custody, but often times they get away and be long gone before the police show up."

According to numbers provided by Hampton Roads Transit, most commutes are peaceful and without incident - but two drivers who contacted NewsChannel 3 complain that there should be more safety measures in place to protect them and the passengers they serve.

The drivers we spoke with suggest the company employ plain clothes, and security marshals on high crime and problematic routes.

"These people are dedicated and doing their best to deliver people to their regularly appointed stops and they're not expected to put up with that kind of grief."

Reps say one problem is that drivers can't defend themselves because if they fight back, they could face termination.

We reached out to Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 1177, who are paid to speak for HRT drivers.

Local President Amanda Sawyer-Malone said, "This attack is not an isolated incident. Attacks on bus drivers is a problem in Hampton Roads and across the country. It not only endangers drivers, but riders. We have been meeting with management to find ways to address this problem including the installation of bus shields/partitions to protect drivers in the event of an attack."

Local union reps say one problem  is that drivers can't defend themselves because if they do fight back, they could be terminated.