TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida lawmakers want to better protect public bus drivers. It comes after one was killed, another brutally attacked in the Tampa area last year.
In May, a passenger stabbed and killed Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus driver Thomas Dunn. Six months later, another HART bus driver, Schnaider Prophete, barely survived a similar but separate incident. A passenger, frustrated over bus fare, stabbed Prophete multiple times in the legs and torso with a boxcutter.
"Somehow I ended up on the floor and he was trying to get my vital organs,” said Prophete, speaking with WFTS reporter Heather Leigh shortly after the attack in November. “The Lord was on my side that day.”
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Lisa Bacot, who heads the Florida Public Transportation Association, said those attacks prompted lawmakers to draft Senate Bill 1416 and a House companion to better protect drivers.
“Most every trip that goes off has been perfectly safe and nothing happens,” she said. “However, there have been several incidents. We are concerned as an industry across the nation— not just Florida, of increased attacks.”
If passed, the legislation requires public bus drivers to receive training, defusing confrontations before violence erupts.
It also encourages the installation of driver barriers, protective boxes covering the driver’s seat. Though the bill’s current draft requires cities to install the barriers, officials say due to the high cost of such installations lawmakers are planning to amend the bill and remove the mandate.
The legislation would also upgrade any assault of public servants to a third-degree felony instead of a misdemeanor.
“That’s a violent crime,” said Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Valrico, who’s sponsoring the House version of the bill. “You’re putting someone in fear for their life. This isn’t a mandatory minimum, by the way. All we’re doing is giving judges a little more sentencing discretion.”
The bills just hit chamber committees and have yet to move. But, Beltran said he does have the support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
If signed by the governor, different pieces of the legislation go into effect at different times. The upgraded charge for assault would start in October. The rest of the policies would need to be in place by 2021.