Auckland bus drivers are being assaulted at the rate of one a week. They say it’s an emergency, and that their employers and Auckland Transport need to fulfil their legal duties to protect driver safety.

Gurdeep Sahni was up at 4am on Tuesday this week, arrived for work at the NZ Bus City Depot in downtown Auckland at 6.10, and was behind the wheel of a CityLink bus at 6.40.

He took a break at the depot at quarter past nine and then, following a bus check at ten past ten, headed back out on schedule at 10.24am.

At approximately 10.40, at the Civic bus stop in Queen St, he was smashed in the face by a passenger. The blow to his left cheek forced his head against something hard – possibly his seat – and pushed his turban off.

Gurdeep Sahni. 

The 53-year-old ended up in Middlemore Hospital’s emergency department for a CT scan, which confirmed nothing was broken, and he was finally discharged in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Recovering at home two days after the attack, he was nursing a swollen face, constant headache, sore neck, dizziness, hazy vision, and shock – and a great deal of anger.

Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about Sahni’s experience. On average, one Auckland bus driver a week has been attacked on the job this year.

Auckland Transport figures provided to Newsroom this week show there have been 38 assaults on drivers since January. Among Sahni’s fellow drivers employed by NZ Bus – one of eight contractors that operate the AT network – 10 have been assaulted over that period, according to Jay Zmijewski, the company’s chief operating officer.

Things had got so bad by the middle of the year that on July 1, NZ Bus and Auckland Transport were issued with a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) under section 69 of the Health and Safety at Work Act. The issuer of that PIN – which required the two companies to comply with their duties to ensure “as far as reasonably practicable” the safety of drivers – was Gurdeep Sahni.

Sahni has been advocating for drivers’ safety and decent wages for years, and has watched with alarm the surge in assaults on drivers. Four months ago he became a trained health and safety representative, which gave him the legal authority to issue the PIN. It followed a particularly bad spate of attacks, including one in which a passenger who had overshot his bus stop demanded the driver turn the bus around and take him back to it. When the driver declined, the passenger set upon him in a violent assault that left him hospitalised.

On top of the physical assaults, Sahni says drivers are subjected “daily” to verbal and racial abuse and insulting gestures. Many have been spat on.

He says he and his colleagues have provided all the information needed to the authorities to improve driver safety. “We’ve told them where the hotspots are, we’ve given them the information – but where is the help? Instead of getting security guards and transport officers on buses at the hotspots we have told them about, they haven’t done that because it costs them money and resources.”

Sahni’s PIN notice in July triggered a flurry of meetings and an apparent sense of urgency, however. AT’s Stacey van der Putten says transport officers (who check for fare evasion) have been deployed on CityLink and InnerLink routes, and security guards on night services on these routes. “Driver sentiment remains strong – they are appreciating the additional support from transport officers and security staff,” she claimed in emailed answers to Newsroom.

Sahni agrees these do make a difference and serve as a deterrent to anti-social behaviour – but the numbers are inadequate, with only 28 transport officers across the entire AT network.

He says he has been pushing for years for protective cabins for drivers. Since the July PIN notice was filed, AT and NZ Bus have committed to trialling barriers to protect drivers from assailants. Van der Putten says barriers are considered to be a “robust solution”; Zmijewski, from NZ Bus, calls them the “definitive solution”.

But the promised trial will be on only two buses. And there is so far no design specification, no known budget, and no deadline for delivery. Sahni says at one point a brochure showing a proposed screen was distributed at depots, and then nothing happened.

Zmijewski says NZ Bus – recently purchased by Kinetic from Next Capital – is progressing as “as soon as practicable, and sourcing suppliers to design and construct the barriers”. But AT has been told by NZ Bus that they are struggling to find and finalise a manufacturer, and there are no ‘off the shelf’ designs deemed suitable. The trial is being funded by NZ Bus.

But Sahni wonders why it’s so difficult, given that in Queensland protective screens are standard on buses. Or, for that matter, why it took a legal enforcement notice rather than dozens of assaults on drivers to trigger a commitment to the proposed trial.

Garry Froggatt, president of the Tramways Union which, alongside Sahni’s FIRST Union, represents drivers, says there have been discussions with AT about bringing in some kind of protective barrier for the past three to four years, but there has been no progress made and no designs developed.

He acknowledges a trial of barriers in the 2000s met with a mixed reception from drivers. And he says a recent survey of his members shows most don’t want to be fully enclosed, and would like to retain the ability to interact with passengers who sometimes need advice and assistance.

“We just want plastic screens similar to what they’ve got in the banks and supermarkets, just to restrict a passenger trying to attack a driver,” says Froggatt.

In the meantime, AT and contract bus companies are relying heavily on training drivers in “de-escalation” techniques as a key measure to ward off violent assault. Froggatt thinks it has helped; Sahni thinks it’s “rubbish”, and not practical for drivers confronted with passengers coming at them with closed fists.

Worse, he says the de-escalation training is sometimes used against drivers who have been attacked. If subsequent CCTV footage shows the driver hasn’t followed the technique to the letter, they are blamed for instigating the assault, says Sahni.

Indeed, he thinks he’s likely to cop the blame for Tuesday’s assault. That’s because the offending passenger had got on the bus without tagging on, and Sahni asked him if he had a Hop card; he then returned to angrily swipe his card, and unleashed a stream of foul language and abuse as he walked up the bus and sat down. Sahni – who says he has a duty of care to the other passengers on his bus – left his seat and told the man his behaviour was unacceptable; the man responded by threatening to assault him.

Sahni then returned to the driver’s seat and called for help from the control room. It was while he was asking for assistance that the man attacked him, and then ran out of the bus (pursued by another passenger).

It should be no surprise to anyone that there’s a desperate shortage of drivers, says Sahni, who, like other drivers in Auckland, has recently had a pay rise – in his case he moved up in two steps from $24.50 an hour to $26.50.

“Low pay, no safety for drivers, risk of assaults. No one wants to be in this industry. People are leaving. There needs to be a way to stop this nonsense or they will lose more drivers and there will be more shortages.”

He fears it will take a driver fatality to provoke urgency. “Our life has no value for them…If somebody puts a knife through me, that’s when they will come [with help]. That’s the attitude of these PCBUs [Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking] – if somebody doesn’t die, nothing will happen.”

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