TAMPA, Fla. — Protective barriers on public buses could one day become standard on transportation systems across Florida following recent attacks on transit workers.

It's just one piece of a multi-part proposal introduced by two state lawmakers and spearheaded by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, or HART. The organization is in full support of the "Assaults on Specified Persons" legislation as it relates to transit worker safety.

Florida Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Michael Beltran, R-Tampa, filed their respective bills in the Senate and House for consideration: SB 1416 and HB 951.

The two lawmakers, plus Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1593, HART representatives and Tampa Bay officials are expected to speak about the legislation at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

"Transit should be a safe and viable option for all communities," Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said in a news release. "Any efforts we can take to make sure that drivers, passengers and the community are safer is a win-win for everyone."

HART says the bills propose four main changes:

  • The potential for installation of protective barriers
  • Requiring public transit providers to post a sign at the entrance to buses notifying people assaulting a transit worker is a felony
  • Mandatory training for drivers to defuse and deescalate potentially violent situations
  • Increase the enhancement for assault against a uniformed public servant (including transit workers, law enforcement and other first responders) from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony

RELATED: HART will install bus safety barriers after deadly attack on driver

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The political push for increased transit worker safety largely has been spurred by several high-profile attacks. 

In November 2019, a HART bus driver was cut several times in the leg over an argument about the bus fare. The transit organization at the time said that bus did not have a safety barrier in place -- it's uncertain whether it would have worked given a passenger was accused of using pepper spray -- and other buses in its fleet soon would be equipped with such barriers.

But the drive for safety barriers on every bus came in earnest after HART bus driver Thomas Dunn was stabbed to death by a passenger in May 2019. Drivers demanded action be taken, sharing emotional stories during the first HART meeting since the deadly attack about other violent confrontations with passengers. 

"What else needs to happen for you guys to do anything?" asked HART driver Vera Johnson in June 2019. Another driver shared a story about a passenger: "He took his right fist and started to come up and punched me in the face."

More than $1 million eventually was allocated toward the retrofitting project.

Across the bay from Hillsborough County, the attack was enough to spur the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to install safety barriers on its 210 buses.

HART says efforts at the state level complement those being done nationally with the ATU's support of HR 1139, the Transit Worker and Pedestrian Protection Act.

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