Wednesday, November 28, 2007

OC Transpo to install Driver Cameras on Buses to Monitor Driving

Weeks after OC Transpo enlisted spies to monitor its drivers, the transit company is poised to spend $250,000 to equip 265 of its buses with cameras that will watch over them -- and passengers -- in a bid to improve safety and boost ridership.

If the six-month pilot project is a success, OC Transpo will spend $750,000 more to equip all buses with cameras by next year.

Cameras will be installed early next year over the rearview mirrors of test buses. They will automatically capture audio and video when drivers brake hard, swerve or speed up rapidly, or if the buses are involved in accidents. Drivers will also be able to activate the cameras manually should they want to record an incident. The digital recording system allows events leading to, during and after incidents to be saved.

OC Transpo boss Alain Mercier told councillors that he expects the cameras will improve the service, based on experiences in several other cities that use cameras.

"The data is clear that we should see some benefits from this," he said.

A survey last spring found the citizen satisfaction rating for transit among the lowest of 20 services the city provides, and transit officials are hoping that better driving and more courteous service will get more people to use public transit and increase rider satisfaction.

In a report on the project to city councillors on the municipality's transit committee, city staff say studies show the systems reduce risky driving habits because the drivers know they are being watched and tend to concentrate harder on the task at hand so they won't trigger the recording systems.

The studies show accidents drop on average 38 per cent and vehicle damage, personal injury and workers' compensation claims drop 25 per cent. Accident claims costs also drop dramatically because the cameras often show drivers aren't at fault.

The studies say drivers tend to operate buses more smoothly and safely when the cameras are on board even though they know the cameras aren't recording all the time.

Another benefit of this system is that it's one-tenth the cost of closed-circuit television systems that constantly monitor the buses, which were being considered by transit officials before the alternative system was found.

City council set aside $500,000 last year to get cameras on some buses.

Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279, which represents OC Transpo drivers, mechanics and others, were consulted by company officials.

Calls to the union weren't returned yesterday, but the city staff report says the union is of two minds on the issue. The report says the union supports putting the cameras on the buses because it feels the system will increase the safety of the drivers.

At the same time, however, the report says the union wants assurances that the recordings "will not be used in disciplinary matters."

Mr. Mercier said the purpose of the cameras is to get drivers to operate their vehicles better and to increase their safety, not to monitor drivers and use the information against them.

"Any data we have as part of our operations is available for us to use in that manner," he said.

"It's not the purpose, the purpose is to protect drivers, and we aren't going to use this as a baseball bat, but if a situation arises that demands we use it, we can."

At Hurdman Station yesterday, Mohammad Ghaderi, who has been driving for OC Transpo for almost a decade, said he supports the move.

"The operators can benefit because safety matters and society can benefit because they will feel safe in the back of the bus if there are cameras," he said. "Having the cameras will eliminate any violence on the bus."

Some riders also said they thought the cameras would make buses safer for everyone.

"I think it would be a good idea because some of the routes like the No. 2, the 97, sometimes it gets a little rowdy and a little scary, not only for us but it would also be safer for the drivers," said 42-year-old Chantal Houle.

Safety on buses has been a high-profile issue since last September, when 23-year-old Michael Oatway was stabbed to death on the Route 118 bus after a group of youths demanded he hand over his iPod. After that incident, 10 video cameras were placed on certain bus routes as part of a pilot project.

His death also prompted the drivers' union to demand video cameras on all buses, a Plexiglas barrier to protect drivers and bus marshals to enhance security.

Other riders said safety wasn't the only thing that would improve if the drivers are monitored.

"Sometimes the drivers are crazy, they hit the gas and someone goes flying," said Jonathon Gillan, 26.

This the second time in a few months OC Transpo officials have employed a monitoring program in order to get drivers to do their jobs better. In the early fall, the company hired spies to ride buses to check whether drivers were calling out stops in accordance with its policy.

At the time, Mr. Mercier let it be known that the "silent shoppers" were riding buses at all times of the day and on weekends recording drivers' performance.

He said if drivers were caught not calling stops, there would be increasing levels of discipline up to dismissal.

This program appears to be working. The company reported recently that more and more drivers are complying with the policy of calling out stops.