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MBTA testing partition for bus drivers

Barrier would offer safety from unruly riders

It has only been a day since bus operator Antoinette Bradley began driving with the MBTA’s newest safety equipment, a plexiglass partition that separates her from passengers. But already, she’s a fan.

“I feel much safer now, and I don’t have to worry about anyone,” Bradley said. “They need it on every shift, on every route.”

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In response to a rash of assaults on bus drivers in recent years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is testing a barrier that would help protect operators from angry passengers seeking to hit or spit on them.

The protective partition, made of metal and plexiglass, was installed on one bus this week. For the next 90 days, drivers will take turns using the bus on their routes, reporting their impressions to T officials.

If drivers give positive feedback, the T will include the partition on every new bus purchased for the fleet. It is a move many US transit authorities are making, MBTA general manager Beverly A. Scott said. Last year, there were 43 assaults on bus drivers — a significant increase from previous years. So far this year, 14 assaults have occurred, one fewer than at this point in 2013.

“Historically, people have not wanted to do enclosures. It’s not the most inviting thing in the world when it comes to customers,” Scott said. “Because of the fact that there has been an increase in assaults on bus operators across the country, now people are having to take a much more serious look.”

On Tuesday at Cabot Bus Garage in South Boston, Bradley showed off the prototype. The bottom half of the partition is metal, opens with a handle from the inside, and locks into place. The top half of the door is plexiglass, but has a cutout of about 18 inches, so the driver can access the fare box and has a direct line-of-sight to the side view mirror.

Scott said that in choosing the prototype, T officials tried to strike a balance between protection and not creating a cramped space for drivers.

“It’s not like it’s the cab of a train,” where there’s more room to move, Scott said.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already installed plexiglass partitions on more than one-third of its bus fleet and plans to outfit all local buses with barriers in coming years, spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.

In other places, such as Seattle, bus partitions have proven controversial. Drivers worry it impedes their ability to communicate with customers and help disabled passengers board the bus. Additionally, some worry the barriers create a perception that riding the bus is dangerous.

The King County Metro Transit system there tried bus barriers after a driver was beaten and knocked unconscious by a teen. But just six months later, the pilot program was nixed because drivers gave a thumbs down, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

But Bradley insists the partition being tested here does not prevent her from interacting with customers. If anything, she said, she wishes the plexiglass cutout was smaller.

Bradley, who has been an MBTA bus operator for 28 years, usually drives the early shift starting at 3:20 a.m. Especially at those hours, she said, she encounters customers who are intoxicated or unduly angry.

When she drove the bus Monday with the new shield, regular passengers nodded in approval.

“They were very surprised when I pulled up,” she said. “The reaction I got most was ‘It’s about time.’ ”

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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