The union representing Greater Victoria bus drivers is calling on the government to give its members the same legal protection as police officers.
In the wake of a violent assault on a B.C. Transit driver Wednesday, Ben Williams, president of Local 333 of the Canadian Auto Workers, said he wants bus drivers to be recognized as peace officers to deter people from assaulting them.
“The CAW, as well as a few other unions, have been working with local, provincial and federal levels of governments to get the legislation changed so assaults on bus operators carry a higher penalty,” said Williams.
Assaulting a peace officer — a category that, along with police, includes parking enforcement officers, some border officials and corrections staff — is considered by the courts to be a more serious offence that should attract a higher penalty.
Saanich police said the 54-year-old bus driver was punched several times by a passenger Wednesday.
The man was blocked by the driver from leaving via the front door of the bus, where the driver was helping someone in a wheelchair to exit. Told to use the back door, the man refused and punched the driver in the face.
Other passengers who witnessed the attack grabbed the man and held him until police arrived.
Joseph John Janzen, 21, was charged with assault and released from custody Thursday on the condition that he have no contact with the driver. He is also forbidden from using public transit anywhere in Victoria. His first court appearance is set for Jan. 9.
The driver, who has been offered counselling, was not seriously injured and is at home, resting with his family, Williams said.
“Obviously, he’s frustrated by the situation. He didn’t expect to go to work and get assaulted when he’s trying to help a person in a wheelchair get off the bus.”
Assaults on bus drivers are a growing problem across the country, said Williams, who estimated incidents in Victoria have increased to at least one a week.
“Ten years ago, we were under a dozen in a year,” he said. “There have been 56 or 57 assaults so far this year and, with New Year’s coming up, I’m sure the number will rise to 67 or 70 like last year.”
People who threaten drivers, assault them or spit on them are released by the courts right back onto the street, he said.
“That’s why we’re trying to get the legislation changed. We’re not trying to get them police officer rights, but there’s no real deterrent to prevent them from doing it again because the penalty is so minimal.”
Drivers are frustrated, Williams said.
“People shouldn’t have to come to work and be fearful they’ll be assaulted in the course of carrying out their duties.”
Williams said the driver in Wednesday’s incident expects to return to work next week.
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