The Maryland Transit Administration has equipped 10 of its vehicles with "talking bus" technology to warn people who might otherwise be oblivious that a several-ton behemoth is about to cross their paths.
As the No. 20 bus goes into a right turn from Martin Luther King Boulevard onto westbound Baltimore Street, an authoritative female voice announces to all nearby: "Pedestrians, bus is turning! Pedestrians, bus is turning!"
MTA bus operator Lindell Flanigan, a 25-year veteran of the agency, said he noticed a difference in the way pedestrians reacted during Monday morning's run.
"As soon as they heard, they stopped," he said.
The MTA says it is testing two different systems that would give pedestrians an audio warning in hopes of preventing the devastating type of crash that can occur when a bus runs into a pedestrian.
"Our buses have been talking for some time now," said MTA spokesman Terry Owens, referring to the by-now-familiar system announcing stops and transfer points to passengers on the bus. "Now we're taking it another step into the realm of safety."
Bus-pedestrian accidents are a persistent problem for transit agencies. From 2000 through 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 393 pedestrians were killed when struck by transit buses in the U.S.
While they make up only a small percentage of the more than 100 pedestrian fatalities in Maryland each year, they tend to attract intense media coverage and can bring expensive lawsuits.
In February, the MTA learned that lesson all over again when one of its buses struck and killed Cindy Feldstein, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office, while it was making a turn at Slade and Park Heights avenues in Pikesville.
The accident, in which the Baltimore County police determined that Feldstein was at fault, was the only fatality out of eight accidents involving pedestrians and MTA buses over the past year, Owens said.
The MTA's test of the "talking bus" technology had been in the works before that fatality, Owens said.
The MTA is testing systems made by two companies and has installed a different version on five buses each. The vehicles are now on the road, scattered on routes throughout the metropolitan area, Owens said. The agency has posted signs asking riders to call in with their reactions to the system.
The primary purpose of the system is to alert pedestrians with speakers mounted on either side of the bus. Sensors detect when the driver begins turning the wheels and activate the announcement, which is audible from inside the bus if riders are paying attention.
Owens said that besides alerting pedestrians, the announcements are also expected to warn riders as drivers go into turns.
"You see a lot of people standing on the bus," Owens said on a ride aboard the No. 20. "This is a way to let them know a turn is coming and they should hold on a little tighter."
Owens said the MTA is conducting a pilot program under which it will spend about two months evaluating the two systems — one called the ProTran 1 Safe Turn Alert System and the other the Clever Devices Turn Warning System Solution. If the results are encouraging, Owens said, the MTA would like to equip its entire fleet with the warning systems, which cost $1,500-$2,500 a vehicle.
If the MTA decides to adopt the technology, it would join other transit systems around the country.
Washington, which had a spate of bus-pedestrian collisions in 2007-2008, introduced the system on some Metrobuses last year. Unlike the English-only Pro Tran system on the No. 20 bus, it delivers warnings in Spanish as well. Owens said both systems have the capability to deliver a bilingual warning, but he said the MTA is testing the Spanish message only on the five buses equipped with the Clever Devices system.
The agency that is furthest along with talking buses appears to be Cleveland's Regional Transit Authority, which finished installing the system on its entire 400-bus fleet early last year.
The RTA has been happy with the system, said agency spokeswoman Mary McCahon.
In 2010, she said, "we actually had our first year without a bus-pedestrian accident in the history of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority." That unblemished record, which includes bicyclists, has continued up to now. By contrast, she said, the agency had a dozen accident involving either bicyclists or pedestrians in 2008-2009.
"It's been a big safety boost," she said.
McCahon said there have been some complaints that the warnings are too loud, prompting the agency to turn down the volume. But that accommodation can go only so far.
"We don't want to have it so quiet you can't hear it," she said.
In Washington, local blogger Rob Pitingolo dismissed the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's test of the technology as "safety theater."
"Both for those on the street and riders on the bus. Listening to the same safety message for an extended period of time is enough to drive most people a little crazy," Pitingolo wrote on Greater Greater Washington.
But on Baltimore's No. 20 bus Monday, most of the riders liked the idea of their bus talking to them.
"A lot of the time when you cross the street, you maybe don't see what's ahead of you," said Thomas Calhoun, 56, of Edmondson Village. "I think that's a real safety mechanism for someone."
Catherine Kelly of Irvington said the system could be useful for people aboard the bus by alerting them to turns.
"You can get injured, especially if you're the elderly or the handicapped," she said.
Kelly, 75, said she thought the system could also help keep the bus drivers on their toes.
"It might be more useful to some of the operators than the customers," she said.