A NEW weapon in the fight against attacks on bus drivers has been handed out to hundreds of staff in Hampshire.

More than 800 spit kits are being dished out to clamp down on an increasing spate of disgusting incidents - involving passengers spitting at drivers.

Transport bosses at Portswood-based First Hampshire have paid out £3,500 for the kits to go to all frontline staff, including drivers, inspectors and ticket office workers.

A city register of "big spitters" will be set up using the DNA-testing kit, which contains swabs, latex gloves and a self-sealing bag.

Bosses hope it will lead to prosecutions - and it could even help police trace people wanted for other crimes.

The radical move comes after spitting incidents rocketed in Southampton, with up to three people a week venting their anger.

From January to March this year, First Hampshire recorded 11 spitting incidents in Southampton alone.

It is thought many more attacks go unrecorded as drivers fail to report them because they fear no action will be taken.

First's trade union rep Jim Crolla said spitting attacks have soared since new anti-assault screens were put in, preventing drivers from being punched.

"All buses will have these screens by 2005, so the passengers can't get at us. It does mean that they vent their anger in other ways, though," he said.

"Most people say they would rather be punched in the face than spat at."

Now drivers who have been spat at will mop up the saliva with a sterile swab, place it in a sealed bag and, at the end of the shift, hand it over to police.

The sample is refrigerated within six hours and sent for testing. Depending on the seriousness of the assault, it can take between one and six weeks to get the results back.

Police can then match them to their database of known offenders - and swoop immediately.

If no match is found, the sample will be kept on record and checked against new DNA samples until the spitter is identified.

The new weapon in the driver's artillery is already getting results in Scotland, where they have been used by First Glasgow for several months.

Mike Smith, Hampshire's director of operations, said: "We're confident we will achieve some convictions and a drop in spitting incidents. It's worked elsewhere, so we have to try it.

"Spitting is a major problem in Southampton, more than anywhere else in Hampshire and Dorset. It's anti-social and we treat it very seriously."