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HART bus drivers demand protective barrier in wake of deadly stabbing

Other bus drivers claim since the stabbing of driver Thomas Dunn last month, passengers have verbally and physically attacked them.

TAMPA, Fla. — Monday marked the first board of directors meeting since HART bus driver Thomas Dunn was killed along his route in Tampa last month.

It started with a proclamation in Dunn’s memory.

From that point, bus operators told officials how dangerous their job is and questioned why it has taken so long for the public transportation agency to take the necessary steps to protect them.

“What else needs to happen for you guys to do anything?” asked HART Driver Vera Johnson.

Johnson was brought to tears. Other drivers trembled with fear as they recounted their confrontations with violent passengers. They claim of verbal and physical attacks have occurred before – and since – Dunn was stabbed to death along his route May 18 in Tampa.

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One driver told the board how she was assaulted by a passenger who was standing next to her as she tried to steer the bus. 

“He took his right fist and started to come up and punched me in the face,” she said.

The incidents aren’t isolated, say drivers, but constant. The latest, they say, occurred this past Thursday. Board members seemed shocked and disturbed they had not been made aware of the incident.

Driver Arlington Kelly described the confrontation.

“This gentleman came close to the driver, new driver,” he said. “And said, ‘I’m gonna kill you.'"

Dozens of drivers and union members gathered at the HART board meeting demanding changes now.

“We are Thomas Dunn,” they said in unison and solidarity during a public comments portion of the hearing.

In protest, drivers also walked out of the meeting just before HART safety managers offered an updated list of safety measures. The drivers said they weren’t interested because they had not been consulted.

Improvements since January include enhanced training to deal with and defuse confrontations, better cameras and monitors on board buses, as well as top-level armed security at key bus stations. 

The issue with most of those solutions, drivers say, is that while most enhance passenger safety, they don’t do a whole lot to protect the bus operators. 

The measures are reactive, not proactive, they say.

“I don’t think any of you could explain to me how these HD videos would’ve added a single second to operator Dunn‘s life,” said former HART bus operator Ken Elliott.

What drivers say they really want, what they need, is a barrier: a safety partition between themselves and passengers. The total cost to re-fit the fleet is estimated at $1.5 million, which HART Board Chairman Les Miller promised to make happen.

“Bring back the amount that that is going to cost us,” Miller said. “And this board is going to have to find a way to pay for it.”

Drivers also said in a large number of buses, the panic buttons and safety communication equipment doesn’t work.

“I got attacked. Defended myself. The radio wasn’t working. The panic button wasn’t working,” said driver Philip Bergos.

Several board members demanded those issues get fixed immediately.

The board also formed a five-member committee to sit down with the drivers’ union to find out what they need to feel secure in their jobs. They said they wanted to see those items ready for a vote by the time the board meets again next month.

“Doesn’t need to go to the committee,” driver Daniel Haney said. “Doesn’t need a bunch of surveys done. 

"It needs action.”

“When is it that you were going to say it is enough?” Johnson said. “Under no circumstances does this stuff happen again.”

HART safety managers say the idea of driver partitions had been talked about in the past, but at the time they thought operators might get overheated in such a confined space.

They promised to spend the next few weeks looking for a model that works well in the Florida climate and still addresses security concerns.

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