Bus drivers get 'a little bit more security'

Bus drivers in Wellington and Auckland now have panic buttons to help combat assaults, thefts, drunken abuse and medical emergencies.

NZ Bus is in the final stages of rolling out the new technology across its fleet of more than 1000 buses in both major centres as part of a $3 million digital communications upgrade.

It is thought to be the first system of its kind in this country.

In Wellington, that means all 382 Go Wellington, Valley Flyer and Airport Flyer buses will have four emergency buttons, which vary in terms of seriousness.

Project manager Ken Duffin said pushing the main "big red" emergency button would immediately activate a live microphone connected to the NZ Bus communications centre, which would also be recorded.

Bus drivers would be able to describe the danger, or the person at the comms centre could simply listen in and call police if necessary, he said.

On-board GPS trackers would direct emergencies services to where they need to be.

Tonia Haskell, the southern chief operating officer for NZ Bus, said safety was always a number one priority, but the technology had not been introduced because of an immediate threat to employees.

Driver assaults remain relatively rare. NZ Bus operates 20 million passenger trips every year and has only two or three incidents a month across the country.

But incidents of verbal abuse were more frequent, which is why NZ Bus duty manager Murray Simonsen was welcoming the addition of panic buttons yesterday.

"By and large the travelling public in Wellington is fantastic, but this gives us that little bit more security while on the job," he said.

"We have to deal with everything - elderly people needing medical assistance, passengers having diabetic reactions, people being abusive, drunks. It's the full gambit."

Duffin said the technology makeover would make drivers' old analogue radios a thing of the past.

Going digital would also extend the company's communications coverage, meaning an Auckland control room could manage all vehicles operating on Wellington routes, and vice versa, in the event of a natural disaster.

NZ Bus chief executive Zane Fulljames said services would not be affected while the last of the company's buses were upgraded by August.

NZ Bus had also completed a full review of its fleet and maintenance programme, and made a number of changes to make sure it was exceeding regulatory requirements, he said.

Wellington Tramways Union secretary Kevin O'Sullivan said the union did not record assaults and other personal-safety incidents involving drivers.

But anecdotal discussions suggested there was only "a handful" each year. "It's the sort of job where anything can happen."

Stories of driver danger were slightly more frequent in areas such as Stokes Valley and Wainuiomata, but not to the point where the Hutt Valley would be singled out as a troublesome area, he said.

The Dominion Post