MATA bus drivers pushing for barriers to protect themselves, passengers and other drivers

WATCH: MATA bus drivers pushing for barriers to protect themselves, passengers and other drivers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — FOX13 took a deep dive into the safety on MATA buses and the calls for protective shields to protect the operators.

Those shields are expensive, and the transit authority said no data exists that definitively points to them as being effective.

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The bus driver’s union believes the shields are not only important to public safety but can save lives.

MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld said the authority can't afford to install those shields because it could cost up to $2 million, money better spent on improving services.

The union insisted the people who drive those massive buses on city streets are harassed daily and sometimes unruly passengers are putting the drivers and the public in danger.

Every day, up to 200 MATA buses travel Memphis and Shelby County streets carrying thousands of passengers to work and other destinations.

Public transit is important to Sharon Oliver because it helps you “get to important places in your life when you don't have a car."

With a 20,000-pound bus sharing the road with other vehicles, there is no room for the threat of violence.

“Anytime there is an assault on the bus, whether or not it be the operator, or a passenger, or anybody around the bus, it is a terrible thing,” said MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld.

FOX13 Investigates has discovered eight examples where drivers have been either attacked or harassed since 2016, the only figures the transit authority can provide.

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“We have had operators that have had urine thrown on them, we have had operators that have been punched, spit on, so it can get pretty violent," said Marcus Gunn, president of Local 713 American Transit Union.

FOX13 obtained MATA bus surveillance video that shows a passenger tossing a liquid onto a bus driver. The driver was not seriously injured but shaken.

Other video FOX13 obtained showed passengers either inappropriately touching a driver or taunting them.

"It not only puts the driver in danger. It puts the passengers in danger as well,” said Gunn.

He believes it puts those who share the road with the buses at risk too. The union believes a plexiglass operator shield can protect the driver.

Major public transit agencies across the United States and Canada use them.

“It puts a barrier between the operator and the assailant,” said Gunn.

MATA management is concerned about safety but hesitant about embracing the idea of the protective shields or barriers.

“I don’t want anyone to be assaulted while they are working. But at the same time, I don’t know if installing a shield between the driver and the passenger, customers would alleviate the idea of being threatened," Rosenfeld said.

For MATA, one important issue is cost to their limited budget.

Rosenfeld told FOX13 it could cost as much as $2 million to equip the entire fleet of MATA buses with shields.

“If money were no object, we would be probably more receptive to doing a program like this,” said Rosenfeld.

FOX13 asked if this was an issue between cost and public safety on a bus.

“There is no true definition that it is a public safety issue. There have been some incidents. The incidents are rare," Rosenfeld said.

Dollars and data are driving Rosenfeld's decision. He points to the Transportation Cooperative Research Board, a research arm of the industry funded by the Federal Transportation Agency.

The TCRB reviewed transit agencies in Miami, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Rochester, New York – and the results were mixed.

In Miami, an analyst with TCRB found Miami Dade Transit noted: "The barriers were their most effective security measure against bus operator assault… but the compartment door provides only partial protection."

Union leadership believes MATA is relying too much on pro-management data.

“We don’t want to wait until something tragic happens to one of these operators before you decide to put these shields up because by then it is too late,” said Gunn.