Passengers board a New Jersey Transit train at Pennsylvania Station on April 26, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
New Jersey lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday intended to protect bus drivers, train engineers, and other public transit employees from assault, a measure supporters say is critical as threats and attacks on transit workers have skyrocketed during the pandemic.
Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer), a prime sponsor of the bill, said the “alarming rise” in attacks on transit workers inspired him to introduce the bill, which has bipartisan support.
Benson chairs the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, which unanimously passed the bill Thursday.
“Transportation workers are far too often subjected to vicious attacks by irate passengers for simply doing their jobs,” Benson said. “We need a better communication system on these buses and to make sure there are supports for the victims, many of whom have to go back on the same route with the same passengers the next day. This is hoping to stop the violence.”
The Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act would upgrade the penalty for assaulting a transit worker to at least a third-degree aggravated assault.
The bill would allow transit companies to ban offenders for up to a year, or for life if the attacker uses a deadly weapon. It would also require companies to equip vehicles with a communication system that workers can use to call law enforcement; establish an employee assistance program; provide anti-violence and mental health training for transit workers; and coordinate with law enforcement and transit police to protect workers on potentially problematic routes.
Ron Sabol is legislative director of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation Transportation Division, a union that supports transit workers. He testified in support of the bill.
“The pending bill is critical to all transit workers as well as the public,” Sabol said. “No one should be scared or in fear of their life when going to work.”
In October, an NJ Transit rail passenger pulled a knife on a conductor who asked him to wear a mask in Bergen County. In August, another rail passenger hit, cursed, and used racial slurs toward an NJ Transit conductor who had asked him to put on a mask. Offenders in both incidents were arrested.
The Senate Transportation Committee passed a version of the bill in November.
Cracking down on dirt bikes and ATVs
The Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee also advanced another bill Thursday that would allow municipalities to pass ordinances to confiscate and destroy any all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, or snowmobiles that are driven illegally on public property.
Under current law, such vehicles get impounded and then returned to owners once they pay towing costs and show proof of registration and insurance.
Assemblyman William Moen (D-Camden) said he co-sponsored the bill because he feels these vehicles are dangerous when driven illegally. Several ATV riders have died in crashes in Camden in recent years, including a recent wreck in April.
“I personally have seen the destruction and damage these things can do,” Moen said.
Benson noted it’s a problem particularly in cities.
“It’s very unsafe, and very often, they’re driven at excessive speeds, sometimes at night without the lights even on,” he said.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) also applauded the bill.
“We have major problems here in Paterson, and unfortunately, the police can’t chase them,” Wimberly said.
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