State lawmakers will consider legislation this year strengthening the criminal penalties for people who attack state bus drivers.
The bills are being sponsored by Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry and State Rep. Mike Beltran, a Lithia Republican whose district includes part of Hillsborough County where a bus driver was killed last year after a rider slit his throat before exiting the bus. Another Tampa bus driver was stabbed several times with a box cutter and pepper sprayed after a passenger grew upset about the bus fare.
The legislation (SB 1416) would put bus drivers in the same category as other uniformed public servants such as law enforcement and fire firefighters. It would reclassify a physical attack on a transit worker from a second degree misdemeanor to a third degree felony.
The bills would require bus drivers to get de-escalation training. They would also mandate all public transit agencies post a sign by January 2021 warning that attacks on transit workers could result in imprisonment for up to five years and put up barriers to restrict public entry into bus drivers’ workstations.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is in the process of installing such barriers, while the Hillsborough agency has completed its installation. Those barriers not only protect drivers from people entering their space, they are ballistically-graded.
Mark Delegal of Holland & Knight said he expects the legislation will get support from various stakeholders, including the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County State Attorney. Other transit agencies are also likely to support the measure.
Adding safety barriers to protect drivers is a national trend as assaults on drivers become more common. Congressional leaders introduced federal legislation this year called The Transit Worker and Pedestrian Protection Act. The bill would require transit agencies to add safety improvements to help reduce the number of assaults on drivers.