Bus drivers threaten class action over violent assaults, abuse and rock throwing

by | Oct 8, 2020 | News, NT Politics | 3 comments

A contingent of Darwin bus drivers have signed a letter to the NT Government threatening a class action arguing the government had breached its duty of care as it was “acutely aware” of thousands of cases of abuse, violent assaults and rock throwing.

But the government has denied responsibility, stating the the Territory does not owe a duty of care to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to drivers or passengers of buses from the criminal or anti-social behaviour of other passengers, either on buses or at interchanges.

Antony Bullock, a part-time bus driver working for private bus company Territory Transit initiated the letter and set in motion the wheels of a class action in June of this year with the signatory support of more than 25 drivers.

The group allege the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics, in charge of Darwin’s transport, “has effectively ignored” an overwhelming number of incidences on buses stretching almost a decade.

“This negligence is and has been a foreseeable risk and is backed up with tens of thousands of reported incidences on the buses and at various interchanges and bus stops in and around the Darwin environs over many years,” the letter reads.

“Drivers are suffering high levels of anxiety, stress and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorders because the public bus system is so dangerous.

“Many drivers are worried about working at nights and some have resigned because of injuries suffered both physical and mental.”

In his letter sent to Andrew Kirkman, the chief executive of the department, Mr Bullock alleges the department has failed to conduct risk assessments despite repeated advice public buses are a dangerous place to work and commute in.

“Drivers and passengers have and continue to suffer high levels of abuse, violent assaults, verbal and physical threats, intimidation and anti-social behavior which includes drunk and disorderly conduct, rock throwing, and various forms of harassment,” the letter states.

Mr Bullock states that as a result of the inherent risks, people choose not to use the public system, and drivers are often left to their own devises while transit officers are run off their feet.

According to Mr Bullock the responsibility falls on the NT Government to provide security on the buses and at all interchanges and bus stops.

He says Territory Transit and Buslink, Darwin’s two private bus services which have a combined total of about 150 bus drivers, have done all they can to provide a safe workplace, but are unable to establish security due to contractual agreements with the NT Government.

“We allege that the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics understands the high risk and dangers on public buses to transit officers, so much so that transit officers must travel in pairs on the buses (which is very rare) with another transit officer following behind in a vehicle – effectively three transit officers are required to provide security on a single bus,” the letter states.

Alarming rates of violence and anti-social behavior recorded in briefing notes

The Transit Officer Unit’s weekly briefing notes paint an alarming picture of life on the front line.

Transit Officers attended 1064 incidents in just seven days in June of this year, according to a Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics Transit Safety Unit action report.

Of those, 57 were at the request of a bus driver, 128 related to drug and alcohol fuelled violence, 78 incidents occurred on the actual buses and 15 were marked as “serious incidents”.

The documents outline incident after incident. On June 9, 2020, officers assisted a bus driver who had called for help to assist with rocks being thrown at the bus, intercepted a woman “aggressively” harassing other passengers at the Palmerston Bus Interchange, and were too late to break up a fight between two men on route 12.

The list goes on, detailing fights and disturbances to other passengers, and a report of a driver calling for assistance on route 8 as his cage was hit by a disgruntled passenger.

On June 10, the driver of bus 200 called officers to help after a youth had used a scooter to smash a window of the bus on Livistonia Street in Karama.

On June 11, the driver of bus 87 reported a male passenger was touching a female inappropriately, while at the Casuarina Bus Interchange Transit Officers reported they assisted a man lying on the ground, bleeding from the head.

Government steps in

In 2016, the NT Government invested $91,000 fitting all Darwin and Alice Springs public buses with protective window film.

It was a response to the number of rock throwing incidents at the time and the high risk of injury to passengers, however the government stressed the measure would not stop a window breaking, it would only prevent glass shattering inside the cabin of the bus.

As the action report shows, violence, threats and abuse are not a rare occurrence on Darwin’s fleet of buses, even after the NT Government implemented all 25 recommendations of a safety audit in 2014, designed to improve safety on the public transport system, and included the additions of safety cages for the protection of drivers.

All buses have CCTV surveillance monitored in real time by police are tracked by GPS, and include duress alarms.

Allegations of negligence continue

In his letter to the NT Government, Mr Bullock, says he has the support of many concerned bus drivers “who have suffered in various ways from an unsafe work environment”.

And are “totally dissatisfied” with the current security arrangements for drivers and passengers provided by Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics.

The letter also alleges the department has prohibited bus drivers from wearing personal protective equipment, despite “repeatedly and consistently” advising members of the public the risks of an outbreak of COVID-19.

He says social distancing limitations were not mandated, further placing bus drivers at risk on a daily basis.

Government response denies responsibility

Mr Bullock received a response from the Mr Kirkman in August.

“Whilst the department treats matters of transport safety with the utmost seriousness, the Territory does not owe a duty of care to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to drivers or passengers of buses from the criminal or anti-social behaviour of passengers and others on buses and at interchanges,” his reply asserted.

“I am further advised that, even if there was a duty of care… it is a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the relevant harm in light of the degree and magnitude of risk.”

Mr Kirkman said the government had taken “numerous” steps to address the risks of harm to drivers and passengers, through transit officers and security contractors, and an established consultative committee, made up of bus drivers, unions, police, Transit Safety, Wilsons Security, bus operators and chaired by the department.

In regards to the allegations of negligence relating to COVID-19 precautions, Mr Kirkman said he understands “such a claim cannot succeed where no compensable damage has been sustained by any driver or passenger”.

“Relevantly, no driver or passenger in the Northern Territory has contracted COVID-19 as a consequence of driving or travelling on a bus.

“I can confirm that the department, in consultation with bus operators, has implemented appropriate measures consistent with National Cabinet’s Principles for COVID-19 Public Transport Operations guidelines. These guidelines do not currently recommend the use of personal protective equipment however, contrary to your claim, the department has not prohibited drivers from wearing PPE.”

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