COLUMBUS – A Cincinnati METRO bus driver is shot while driving a bus with school children onboard. In Cleveland, a group of teenagers attack a bus driver with a sock filled with flour.
“When these attacks occur on operators of moving vehicles, it puts the driver, passengers, other motorists and pedestrians in harm's way,” said Scott Ferraro of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.
Assaulting a school bus driver is considered a felony in Ohio, but that condition does not extend to transit workers.
Two lawmakers are trying to change that with a bill that would impose harsher punishments to individuals who assault transit workers.
Under current law, an assault is usually classified as a misdemeanor, except under certain circumstances. If the bill becomes law, a person who assaults a bus driver or transit worker on duty would be charged with a felony.
Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Cincinnati, said the enhanced penalties would act as a deterrent to ensure the safety of the driver and passengers. Driehaus is a primary sponsor of the bill.
“Other transportation operators such as pilots and train engineers are protected by physical barriers; bus drivers are not,” Driehaus said. “METRO drivers transport hundreds of students to and from school every day and deserve the same protections.”
The bill has received support from various groups, including public transport agencies, a labor union, the Buckeye Sheriff’s Association and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority received 12 reports of assault between 2014 and 2015, said Troy Miller, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627 in Cincinnati.
Some of the operators were shot with BB Guns, and one operator was hit in chest, according to an assault record from the public transport agency.
In one instance, a passenger was arrested after an altercation with the operator.
“These employees are not just transit workers,” Miller said. “They are members of the community and members of your church and care about the public, or they wouldn’t do what they do day after day.”
Cincinnati METRO bus operators transport 60,000 people in and around the city every day.
Aside from a possible prison term of six to 12 months, an individual who assaults a transit worker would also receive a fine of up to $5,000.
A judge may also prohibit the offender from riding any Ohio transit system bus or rail car for six months.
Central Ohio Transit Authority CEO W. Curtis Stitt said his agency has employed several measures to prevent misconduct in transit vehicles, such as installing video equipment.
But Stitt added that those measures might not always be effective in deterring someone who might cause issues.
“Cameras don’t deter every troublemaker,” Stitt stated in his testimony. “A law providing enhanced penalties for assaults on a transit operators and other public transit employees will provide public transit officials and the courts a much needed additional tool to combat the deleterious actions that undermine the transportation services transit agency employees provide throughout the state. “
The bill would also impose harsher penalties on people who evade fare payments.
Miller said 29 states already have some kind of law that gives special status to crimes against transit workers as of 2012.
The bill, called HB222, received its second hearing on Tuesday.
Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.