Five months after the fatal stabbing of a bus driver by a passenger, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) has begun installing safety shields in its 180 buses and 12 HARTflex vans. They are scheduled to complete the project in the next few weeks.
After hosting Florida’s first Transit Safety and Security Symposium in July, bringing together safety and security experts and transit agencies from across the country, HART launched the rider awareness campaign, “Ride with Respect,” aiming to provide a positive experience for both drivers and riders.
The campaign is a reaction to employee outcry at a HART board of directors meeting following the murder of driver Thomas Dunn, who was stabbed to death by Justin Ryan McGriff in May. The Hillsborough State Attorney announced in July that they will seek the death penalty in McGriff's case.
READ MORE: WUSF's coverage of HART safety initiatives
The program includes a social media campaign and video series starring HART drivers in an effort to “elevate the transit operator position to the level of first responders.”
The shields are part of the second phase of the campaign, which includes Hillsborough County Sheriff’s training HART staff on de-escalation and situational awareness, as well as new on-board messages reinforcing security rules and riding etiquette.
“We are reminding the public that it is very much against the law to threaten or assault transit operators,” said CEO Ben Limmer.
HART maintenance collaborated with AROW Global, which specializes in transit window systems, to custom fit tempered glass barriers with a latch that drivers can lock from their seat.
The installation, which will cost over $1 million, requires moving fare boxes and other on-board equipment, but Limmer said AROW committed to “a very aggressive timeline” critical to the safety of their employees.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor praised the program’s committee members for “working together to ensure that our drivers are safe so they can provide safe transportation for all of our citizens.”
Brooke Johnson, a driver of three years, said the communication between HART and its employees has been vital to this project. After reaching out to drivers through surveys and meetings, she said this is a “big start.”
“We’re just looking forward to all of the improvements that HART plans on implementing for the safety of the drivers,” Johnson said.
Local Amalgamated Transit Union representative Latisha Jones said the fact that HART listened to their operators and acted on their concerns is a sign that they care about the operators and their workspace.
“We can go out there and we can perform and do our jobs to the best of our abilities without worrying about who's standing behind us who wants to do us any bodily harm,” said Jones. “We have shields now. So we can go ahead and drive our routes in a safe way.”
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority announced similar plans in June to install barriers that provide more protection for drivers. PSTA officials voted unanimously to accept a $1.2 million bid from Aftermarket Parts Company.