PA: Bus-Driver Shields Spreading, But Not in Philadelphia

With assaults on bus drivers increasing, many transit agencies are installing shields to protect drivers from their customers.

NJ Transit has put shields in 10 buses and is adding 55 in a pilot project to see if they work well enough to be installed across the fleet.

Shields also have been installed or are being tested by agencies in New York City; Chicago; Washington; Rochester, N.Y.; Seattle; and other cities.

In the Philadelphia area, SEPTA officials and leaders of the drivers' union are skeptical that the shields provide enough protection to offset operators' concerns about comfort and the ability to get out quickly in an emergency.

Driving a bus has become an increasingly dangerous occupation. In September, SEPTA officials called for special legal protection for transit operators after a Route 79 driver was shot and wounded in Grays Ferry by a man who tried to board her bus.

It was the 46th assault on a SEPTA employee this year, up from 20 in all of 2010, SEPTA officials said at the time.

In New Jersey, NJ Transit bus driver Ihab Abounaja was stabbed and seriously wounded by a Newark passenger last month. In August, two NJT drivers were robbed in Camden County on the Route 400 bus between Philadelphia and Sicklerville, according to the agency.

In New York, attacks on Metropolitan Transit Authority employees are up about 20 percent this year, according to the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).

"Bus drivers are really curbside tax collectors, and in economic times like this, the problems that bus drivers face with fare collection are going up," said Lawrence Hanley, international president of the ATU. "They represent the government, and they're not armed. We're seeing increased assaults."

A shield is typically a stationary barrier behind the driver and a hinged transparent door at the driver's right side. There are various styles and sizes, some reaching higher than the driver's head.

A leading maker of the shields is Bentech Inc. - a subsidiary of Philadelphia Pipe Bending Co. - which fabricates tempered-glass partitions in its 19th-century factory on Hunting Park Avenue in North Philadelphia.

"You can't build a complete enclosure," said Robert Benninghoff, manager of engineering and sales for Bentech. Drivers need access to mirrors and to be able to escape quickly, he said.

But a shield provides protection from attacks and gives a driver critical time to call for help, he said.

He said the shields typically cost from $1,500 to $2,000.

His firm is building 250 that will be installed in new NJT buses and 100 for existing MTA buses in New York, he said.

NJT spokesman John Durso Jr. said shields added to existing buses would be tested through February, before a decision is made on whether to retrofit the rest of the fleet.

Transit union president Hanley said that add-on shields, while better than nothing, were "inadequate," and that driver protection needed to be designed into new buses.

Add-on shields may make a driver feel claustrophobic or restrict ventilation, he said.

"They may be just enough to keep the driver from getting air-conditioning and not enough to provide protection," said Hanley, a former bus driver in Brooklyn.

"The other thing we think manufacturers should do is build a left-side door, so drivers can get out of the bus," he said. European buses have long had such escape routes, he said.

John Johnson, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents SEPTA drivers, said some drivers are for the shields and some aren't.

"If you're in an accident, you're trapped by being put in a box," he said.

He said the union was exploring the issue as part of an effort to improve driver safety.

Luther Diggs, SEPTA's assistant general manager of operations, said drivers may be better served by conflict-resolution training.

"By segregating drivers from passengers, you make some riders even more aggressive," Diggs said. "If someone wants to shoot a bus up, a shield is not going to help you."

SEPTA drivers are taught to try to "de-escalate" conflicts with passengers and not to fight over fares, Diggs said.

"Two dollars is not worth getting hurt over," he said.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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