Thursday, August 26, 2010

WMATA Installs Cameras to Monitor Bus Drivers

Metro is installing cameras on its entire fleet of 1,500 buses as part of a five-year, $3 million program to monitor driving by bus operators and improve safety, transit officials said Wednesday.

The new camera system will be focused on drivers as well as activity outside the bus. The cameras are recording constantly during bus operations, but when a driver makes any extreme movement -- such as turning the bus sharply or accelerating quickly -- the cameras capture the 15 seconds before and after the incident. The video and audio of the incident is then automatically downloaded off the bus wirelessly when the bus returns to the garage.

Metro already has security cameras installed on more than 1,000 buses that are aimed in front of the bus as well as at passenger areas and are intended to document and deter accidents, crimes and conflicts, Metro spokesman Reggie Woodruff said. However, the existing cameras require that the video be retrieved within a couple of days or it is recorded over.

Metro is installing the new cameras on buses and training bus operators at each of its nine bus garages, starting at the large Bladensburg garage, said Jack Requa, Metro's assistant general manager of bus services. He said Metro will begin turning on the cameras in October, and all will be running by January.

"If a driver is showing less attention, with hands not always on the wheel, we can use it as training," he said. "Because the operator knows the camera will be watching him or her, they will try to minimize the times the system is triggered, and it will lead them to be more alert." Even driving over a pothole can trigger the system, Requa said.

DriveCam, the San Diego-based firm contracted to conduct the program, will analyze data from any incidents and provide it to Metro to promote better driving habits and also help with investigations. Metro has purchased the cameras and will have the option of operating them and analyzing the data with its own staff after two years.

Money became available for the cameras last spring, Requa said.

"When we had the opportunity to do both [security cameras and DriveCam], we jumped on it, because we know others had used it and it had a pretty drastic impact on reducing accidents," he said.

Despite some highly visible bus accidents this summer -- such as an alleged hit and run earlier this month in Ballston and an incident in which a bus crashed into a yard in Silver Spring in July -- Metro's bus accident rate has been declining in recent years, according to data from the agency. The bus accident rate for fiscal year 2010, which ended in July, was 1.57 accidents for every 100,000 miles. "Those were preventable accidents," where the Metro bus operator was all or partially at fault, Requa said. In 2009 the rate was 1.79, and in 2008 it was 1.91.

"This region is highly congested and has lots of traffic. . . . We are pleased with a progressive rate of decrease," he said.

Along with the training and safety benefits, Metro officials said, the system is expected to help cut down on damage to buses, workers' compensation claims as well as personal injury by preventing accidents. Improved driving habits by bus operators, such as not driving too fast or accelerating too quickly between stops, will help save fuel, Woodruff said.

The DriveCam system is in use by other transit agencies in San Francisco, Austin and New Jersey, officials said. In the Washington area, DriveCam users include Washington Gas, Amerigas and AGL Resources.