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Can talking buses save pedestrians’ lives?

November 20, 2017 news

A recent announcement that a Winnipeg-based bus manufacturer was buying a pedestrian warning system that basically shouts at people had at least one transit union claiming they thought it was a joke.

“When we read the story … we thought it was an article from the Onion,” said Larry Hanley, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, in a press release. “It’s basically a speaker broadcasting a loud message to pedestrians saying ‘Run like hell, the bus driver can’t see you,” he said of Protran Technology’s Safe Turn Alert system.

The union knows the importance of the issue. Roughly one pedestrian a week is killed by a transit bus in North America, according to its statistics. The union doesn’t have separate numbers for Canada yet.

Transit agencies in some U.S. cities have responded by outfitting their buses with warning systems that use speakers to alert pedestrians when a bus is turning.

VIVA York Region finished piloting one of the systems earlier this year but hasn’t decided whether to buy it, said Igor Zaslavsky, manager of York’s Transit Management Systems.

The Safe Turn Alert system was developed in co-ordination with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, which installed the technology on all its trolleys, buses and articulated coach fleets in 2010 to reduce accidents when drivers were making turns.

In the past seven years, there have been seven accidents involving a pedestrian and a bus turning, compared to 30 accidents from 2005 to 2009, says transit authority spokesperson Linda Scardilli Krecic.

The transit agency says it also saves about $1.13 million (U.S.) a year in compensation, money it would typically have paid out for injuries or deaths related to the collisions. The safe turn alert system cost about $598,000 (U.S.) to install.

However, the transit union, the largest in North America with a total of 200,000 members including 33,000 in Canada, says the systems are “band-aid solutions” and say the real culprit is poor bus design.

“You have poor placements of the left-side mirrors and the A pillars, which are causing blind spots with the drivers,” says Paul Thorpe, national president for ATU Canada.

According to a safety specialist with the union, more than a dozen people can be obscured by the left-side mirror and the pillar — the vertical frame on either side of the windshield that is covered by fibreglass moulding. Bus drivers are trained to do a “rock and roll” in their seat to see around the blind spots, says Thorpe.

The union says there are buses being produced and used in Europe that have no driver blind spots.

New Flyer, the Winnipeg-based bus manufacturer that recently bought the pedestrian alert systems, was part of a lawsuit after an accident in Portland, Ore., in 2010.

The driver of a bus manufactured by New Flyer, and operated by TriMet, a mass transit agency serving the Portland region, turned left at an intersection and killed two people, and injured three others, who were legally crossing.

The case was settled by TriMet and New Flyer out of court in 2013, each agreeing to pay half of the $4-million settlement.

Neither party admitted any wrongdoing but the transit agency said in a statement that it “accepted responsibility for the negligent driving of the bus operator.” The bus driver was fired and in 2011, was found guilty of six traffic violations, including careless driving.

The ATU said the problem was the placement of mirrors and the A-pillar and they have lobbied New Flyer, as well as other manufacturers, to change the design.

About five years ago, the union began lobbying governments in the U.S., and more recently in Canada, where 70 per cent of all North American transit buses are made, to legislate changes that require manufacturers to design buses with smaller pillars and to change the position of the mirrors.

The TTC is aware of the safe turn alert technology, says spokesperson Brad Ross.

Statistics from the transit agency show there were 91 collisions involving pedestrians or cyclists that occurred while a TTC bus was making a turn during a five-year period from October 2012 to September 2017.

“Whether blind spots contribute to incidents is not something we could ever say with any certainty,” says Ross. But “operators are trained to recognize the hazard of blind spots and operate with caution at all times.”