PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Hoping to wake up the growing number of pedestrians distracted by smartphones and other electronic devices on the street, TriMet will give “talking buses” another try on five bus lines starting Monday.
Currently, audible pedestrian warning systems are used by a just a handful of U.S. transit agencies, but bus drivers across the country are increasingly complaining about near misses with distracted walkers glued to their gadgets, TriMet officials said.
With the help of a $400,000 grant, the Federal Transit Administration has decided to use the Portland area as a test market for four emerging pedestrian-alert technologies.
“Very little is known about the effectiveness of these pedestrian warning systems and this lack of knowledge prompted the FTA to sponsor TriMet’s demonstration project,” said Harry Saporta, TriMet executive director of safety and security, in a statement. “Our experience will prove important for the future of this technology as those of us in the transit industry try to increase the level of safety around buses.”
In 2011, months after driver Sandi Day hit five pedestrians in a Portland crosswalk during an illegal left turn, Oregon’s largest transit agency tried a $46,000 audible system warning pedestrians about turning buses. However, the glitchy experiment, which was seen as more of a nuisance among drivers, pedestrians and riders, didn’t last long.
During a demonstration at the Gateway Transit Center on Saturday morning, TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said that the on-board systems, triggered when drivers turn their wheels, have advanced a great deal since the last test and the agency is “hopeful” that at least one of the technologies will be worth pursuing in the future.
Altstadt said TriMet will be working with the FTA to test the new warning systems and provide information for other U.S. transit agencies interested in the technology. TriMet is also partnering with AEM Corporation and Portland State University to evaluate the performance of the warning systems.
During the 2011 experiment, a woman’s voice gave a gentle warning in English and Spanish over an external speaker — “Pedestrians, bus is turning” — whenever the driver turned the wheel, warning pedestrians that 16 tons of metal and exhaust was rolling into the crosswalk.
Often, however, the audible alert didn’t go off until a bus was in the middle of the crosswalk. The external speakers were also located in a poorly insulated section of the bus frame, meaning the woman’s voice often drowned out stop announcements inside the buses.
Frequently, the warning misfired when drivers simply pulled into and out of a stop.
TriMet pulled the plug on the pilot after a couple of months.
The agency will now test three on-board warning technologies:
. Dinex Star LED headlight with Pedestrian Crossing Alert
. Protran Technology Safe Turn Alert
. Clever Devices Turn Warning System
The Dinex Star headlight has “an intelligent system that calculates the bus’ speed and steering wheel angle.” It is designed to automatically turn on additional “super bright LED lights” inside the headlight pointed in the direction of travel, TriMet said.
Operators should also have a better view of the road ahead at night, and the headlight has built-in sound and light alert systems during turns.
Both the Safe Turn Alert and the Turn Warning System have audible warnings through external speakers on both sides of the bus, firing when a driver turns the steering wheel. With the Protran system, the warning is exactly the same as the 2011 system (sans the Spanish translation).
Meanwhile, TriMet will start testing a fixed-location warning sign in downtown Portland at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Burnside Street. The electronic sign will be positioned above the pedestrian signal. The word “BUS” will light up when a bus approaches for a turn.
Altstadt said the agency is hypersensitive to potential problems with noise pollution on bus lines cutting through residential neighborhoods.
The bus warnings are supposed to adjust to ambient sound, meaning the volume should automatically be lower along quieter streets. TriMet will conduct public outreach to neighborhoods during the experiment and may consider GPS technology to turn the warnings off in certain parts of town, she said.
“It will be interesting to find out what works in the neighborhoods,” Altstadt said.