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DART workers fear for their safety as violence against drivers persists

A woman sits at the wheel of a public bus
Pablo Arauz Peña
DART bus driver Evette Morris says she loves her job but she's also faced challenges with aggressive and sometimes violent passengers.

On a sunny Monday morning, bus driver Evette Morris greets a woman standing in front of a West Dallas home along Route 109.

"Hello, my darling," Morris says.

"How are you?" the woman asks.

"I'm blessed," Morris responds.

Morris drives this route from the convention center downtown to West Dallas every Monday and weekends. In the five years she has worked for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, she's built relationships with passengers and people in the neighborhood.

“I love the thrill of being able just to drive on the roads," she told KERA. "Everyone has their passions, mine is driving the bus."

Morris started her bus driving career about 12 years ago, soon after her son was born. She said she got the job for the stability compared to the hospitality work she had previously done.

“I wanted something better for him and a better life [than what] I was used to and accustomed to when I was younger,” she said.

And although she loves her job, sometimes it’s not always a pleasant ride.

“I can't stand some parts of it, like any other job that people have," Morris said. "You have the ones that have, like, the really bad attitudes that want to sit up there and accuse you of doing anything."

Passengers aren’t always as friendly as the woman she greeted along her route. Sometimes, they’re aggressive and even violent.

“The gun violence that was the biggest problem with me because someone pulled a gun on me a year and a half ago," she said. "I suffered from PTSD, and I still do to this day.”

A woman gets ready to board a DART bus in downtown Dallas.
Pablo Arauz Peña
A woman gets ready to board a DART bus in downtown Dallas.

It's gotten so bad that Morris recently addressed the issue at a DART board of directors meeting. And she isn't the only driver who’s had that kind of experience on the job: Last November, a bus driver was shot near Fair Park. It was one of several incidents reported in recent years — and workers say safety concerns aren't helping with low morale at the agency.

That pattern of violence isn’t just happening in Dallas. It’s happening nationwide.

“We're seeing major increases, and that, I think, above all else, is the key tagline — that this is a matter that should not and really cannot be ignored,” said Lindiwe Rennert, a researcher at the Urban Institute and author of a recent report on the uptick of violence on public transit.

Rennert said assaults on transit workers across the country have tripled since 2008, according to the most recent numbers from the National Transit Database. That only includes major assaults that ended in a fatality or needing medical attention.

In DART’s service area, the number of assaults fell in 2017, but have begun to increase slightly from pre-COVID years. Five incidents were reported between 2021 and 2022. The numbers for 2023 haven’t been released yet.

Rennert said income inequality and societal tensions are just two factors that could be contributing to the rise in violence.

“We are products of our environment," she said, "and as our environment feels increasingly unequal, and as we think we have less of an accountable platform to raise those qualms and things like that, assaults are going up."

She added that agencies across the country are trying different things to address the safety issue, including providing low- or no-cost fare for passengers.

In December, the Federal Transit Administration put out guidance requiring transit agencies to assess safety risks for workers. The agency is asking the public to comment on the new guidance through Feb. 20. Rennert said the guidance a step in the right direction.

The sign in front of the headquarters for Dallas Area Rapid Transit or DART in downtown Dallas.
Pablo Arauz Peña
The sign in front of the headquarters for Dallas Area Rapid Transit or DART in downtown Dallas.

Over the past year, DART has addressed the rise in crime by hiring more security officers and upgrading cameras and security systems, but Rennert said there’s not much evidence to show more security means safer transit.

“What little we have is questionable — varied in results — evidence that the presence of law enforcement in transit spaces results in more lawful behavior,” she said.

Rennert said that transit workers' unions are at the forefront of advocating for improved safety conditions on the job. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1338 represents DART workers, who frequently attend the agency's board meetings to address safety concerns and a range of other issues, from benefits to pay raises.

Kenneth Day, who represents ATU at the national level, told KERA he has noticed a change in DART’s response to safety concerns. He said the union recently met with CEO Nadine Lee to talk about pay raises, benefits and safety.

“She appeared to be listening," he said. "She didn't make any commitments, although then she did tell us that she wanted to have a communication and she will respond back to the employees."

DART did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but Day said he welcomes the new guidance from the FTA. He’s also expecting a report to come out soon from DART about the most recent crime data.

“I think there has been some sign of some improvement, but definitely there's much more needed,” he said.

In the meantime, drivers like Evette Morris will keep the buses running with service in mind.

“My favorite part of the job is the people. I wouldn’t say some of the people – don't get me wrong," Morris said. "But the people that I service, they're so heartwarming, they're so welcoming.”

After all, Morris said, it’s the people that keep her coming back to work.

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Pablo Arauz Peña is the Growth and Infrastructure Reporter for KERA News.