Public outcry growing for tougher penalties after attacks on bus and cab drivers

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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WINNIPEG - Calls are growing louder following a string of violent attacks in Winnipeg and Edmonton for a federal crackdown on criminals who target bus and cab drivers.
Three Winnipeg cab drivers have been victims of violent car-jackings in the last week, while an Edmonton bus driver is still recovering in hospital from a savage attack before a bus full of horrified passengers in December. Three other bus drivers have been assaulted in the city since then.
Civic politicians in both cities and the transit union say assaults on drivers should be singled out in the Criminal Code, as are assaults on police and peace officers. That would allow judges to impose stiffer sentences.
"It's high time," says Winnipeg Coun. Harry Lazarenko, who sits on the province's taxi board.
"We're talking about providing safety to those who are providing transportation and those who are using that transportation. A number of drivers have been assaulted, have been killed. Something has to be done."
In the last week, three different Winnipeg cabbies have faced attacks. One was pepper-sprayed, another was slashed with a knife, and another beaten and robbed. The assailants are often just charged with common assault and are back on the street in no time, Lazarenko says.
It's reached the point where cab drivers are refusing to work at night.
"This has just gotten out of hand," he says. "We can't let these hoodlums take over. We have to take a serious look at this."
Phil Walding, general manager of Duffy's Taxi in Winnipeg, said drivers are providing a vital public service and deserve added protection for putting themselves on the line every day.
"People have second thoughts about taking shots at the cops because they know they can get in trouble over and above what's normal," he said.
Bus drivers say they are equally vulnerable.
Tom Bregg, a 58-year-old Edmonton driver, was attacked by a passenger who pulled him from his seat and kicked him repeatedly in the face on Dec. 3. The dispute started over a fare.
Gary Edwin Mattson, 24, was arrested shortly afterward and has been charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. He was also charged with assaulting a peace officer after police alleged one of their members was spat on during the arrest.
The attack shocked Edmonton residents and prompted city councillors to draft a motion calling for bus drivers to be included in the Criminal Code.
Robin West, director of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Canada, said assaults on bus drivers are on the rise. About 40 per cent of Canadian drivers say they have been assaulted in their career, he said.
Last year alone there were 2,000 assaults reported across Canada - an increase of about 400 from the year before, West said.
"We have drivers who have been assaulted and it's hard for them to get back behind the wheel again," West said. "They're always looking over their shoulders. You got 60 people sitting behind you at any given time. You start to get a little paranoid."
The attacks don't just endanger the drivers, West said.
"When we're being assaulted, it's a 10-tonne vehicle being driven down the street," he said. "If you're being assaulted while that bus is being driven down the street, you are not only endangering the driver, you are endangering the passengers on the bus and the general public in the vicinity of that bus."
But a spokeswoman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the Criminal Code "already provides adequate protection to transit drivers against all forms of assault."
In an emailed statement, Pamela Stephens said the courts have a history of treating assaults on drivers very seriously.
"The circumstances surrounding assault on a public transit official are inherently serious because of the possible consequences to both the driver and the public more generally should an accident ensue," she wrote, refusing to address similar assaults on cab drivers.
"This has been expressly recognized by Canadian courts as a basis for imposing a higher penalty with the objective of specifically denouncing and deterring such conduct from happening again in the future."
Advocates say there are also other ways of improving driver safety.
In Winnipeg, cabs are already equipped with shields and in-car cameras.
Bus driver shields are currently being tested in Edmonton and could be installed on all city buses.
The city said Thursday it's also reviewing bylaws with an eye to increasing fines for inappropriate behaviour, as well as taking advantage of new technology including a dedicated emergency radio channel and closed-circuit television.

Organizations: Amalgamated Transit Union

Geographic location: WINNIPEG, Edmonton, Canada

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