Legislation would strengthen criminal penalties against those who attack bus drivers

jta buses
Transit workers described being attacked, spit on and sexually assaulted by passengers.

Legislation that would strengthen criminal penalties for people who attack state bus drivers cleared its second House committee Tuesday.

Public comment on the bill (HB 951) sponsored by Rep. Mike Beltran, a Lithia Republican, largely came from state transit workers who described being attacked, spit on and sexually assaulted by passengers. While they mostly supported the legislation, some criticized it for not going far enough. The bill does not mandate barriers to restrict the public’s entry into bus drivers’ workstations.

The legislation puts bus drivers in the same category as other uniformed public servants such as law enforcement and fire firefighters. It reclassifies a physical attack on a transit worker from a second degree misdemeanor to a third degree felony.

The bill requires all public transit agencies to create and implement risk reduction programs by July 1, 2021. Those programs must give bus drivers de-escalation training and may include putting up barriers. The measure also mandates public transit agencies post a yellow sign by January 2021 warning that attacks on transit workers could result in imprisonment for up to five years.

The legislation was prompted by escalating attacks on transit workers, including two attacks on Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority (HART) bus drivers. Thomas Dunn, was stabbed to death in May by a passenger. Another Tampa bus driver was cut several times with a box cutter and pepper sprayed after a passenger grew upset about the bus fare.

Dwayne Russell has worked as a bus operator for Jacksonville Transportation Authority for more than 20 years. He said the job has become less safe. He told lawmakers about a female colleague who was punched in the face. 

“When you see that footage, it does something to you because she wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “Lucky enough, the bus wasn’t in motion.”

Several of the speakers urged lawmakers to make the barriers mandatory. Beltran said they were changed from mandatory to a mere recommendation from the original drafted bill because of stakeholders’ concerns about the fiscal cost to install them. Beltran said Hillsborough installed about 180 barriers at a cost of $1 million. 

Beltran’s legislation now goes to the House State Affairs Committee. The Senate companion bill (SB 1416) sponsored by Republican Sen. Keith Perry is waiting for a hearing in its second committee.

Sarah Mueller

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to [email protected].


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