Tranquil travel: violence on our public transport networks

There hasn’t been a radical increase in violent acts on public transport, despite growing public concern. AAP/Dan Peled

Last month, a video of an elderly man’s alleged assault on a Gold Coast bus went viral on social media after a passenger filmed the confrontation. The incident put the sometimes-ignored issue of violence on Australia’s public transport back in the spotlight.

Aggression between passengers or against drivers on our bus networks is nothing new. Racial slurs, threats, bashings and brawls have been reported in several states in recent years. And violence towards taxi drivers has previously caused public concern. There have also been a number of incidents on train networks across Australia in recent times.

But is the fear of violence on our public transport systems justified? And what can be done to prevent such crimes?

Prevalence of crime on public transport

Data from the Queensland Police Service shows that 1379 offences were recorded for transport locations in the Gold Coast region in 2012-13, with an average of 41 assaults per annum over the past three years.

Offences against the person and against property have remained stable since 2010. The only increases were in the “other offences” category (drugs, good order and traffic-related crimes).

Examination of the most recent Queensland Police data from July to November 2013 demonstrates that offences against the person, such as assault and sexual assault, account for only 5% of all reported offences on public transport. The majority of offences are against property or good order.

Victorian statistics reveal a total of 9745 recorded offences on public transport in 2012-13. As in Queensland, there is a similar pattern with offences against the person accounting for 12% of total crimes on public transport. Importantly, the Victorian statistics show that public transport crime, on average, has increased by only 1.7% per year since 2009-10.

New South Wales recorded a total of 1811 assault crimes in 2012-13. An analysis of the NSW Crime Map data reveals only 2.8% of all assaults occurred on any form of public transport.

For the last seven years, public transport assaults in NSW have on average decreased by around 2% per year. People are more likely to be assaulted at home (53%) or on the street (18%).

But this statistical picture of the nation remains patchy. Despite some peaks and troughs, there does not appear to be any radical change in the patterns. Statistically, offences involving violent acts are the least likely type to occur.

Still, it needs to be stressed that the official data on transport crime is not very robust in this country. Not all acts of aggression on buses, trains or in taxis are reported to police. Our perceptions of increased violence on public transport may be because of greater social media exposure and the availability of CCTV footage.

Law enforcement responses So, how have governments and law enforcement reacted to the increased perception of violent crime on our public transport networks? In Queensland, Gold Coast police conducted operations, codenamed Aurora, in 2008 to enhance safety and security of bus drivers and passengers. This involved plain-clothed officers travelling on buses, monitoring bus stops, police cars following bus services and using in-bus CCTV footage to charge offenders. Operation Aurora was carried out over 12 months and resulted in the arrest of 90 people on 115 charges for transport-related offences. Similarly, in South Australia, high-visibility policing on public transport networks targeted crime and anti-social behaviour in 2013. In addition, Transit Barring Orders were introduced in South Australia in January this year for commuters who commit anti-social crimes across the public transport network. Commuters can be banned from travelling on public transport or visiting places like railway stations for days, weeks or even permanently. Similar laws are in place in Queensland. In New South Wales, specific legislation applies to criminals who are sentenced for some public transport-related crimes. The court is required to take into account whether the victim of an offence is vulnerable because of their job, like bus drivers. This may increase the severity of sanctions. Prevention and perspective There is no doubt that acts of aggression on buses, trains or in taxis are a cause of concern. Drivers ought to feel safe in their workplaces. And passengers (whether schoolchildren, commuters or tourists) should be able to feel they will have secure and tranquil journeys. State and local transit authorities, as well as private providers, have put strategies in place to curb aggressive incidents. The data provides support for these initiatives, suggesting there has not been an exponential increase in transport-related crimes. So despite the media hype surrounding violent acts, it is still relatively safe to travel on Australia’s public transport networks. But this does not remove the need for more research into the effectiveness of existing strategies and finding new ways of keeping our networks safe.

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