New cameras to catch Metrobus drivers' mistakes

 A technician installs DriveCam equipment at the Bladensburg Metrobus division.
A technician installs DriveCam equipment at the Bladensburg Metrobus division. (Courtesy of WMATA)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010

Metro is installing cameras on its entire fleet of 1,500 buses as part of a five-year, $3 million program to monitor bus driver performance and improve safety.

The new camera system focuses on drivers and activity outside the buses, transit officials said. The cameras record constantly during bus operations, and when a driver makes any extreme movement -- such as turning the bus sharply or braking or accelerating quickly -- the cameras capture the eight seconds before the incident and the four seconds after. The video and audio of the incident are then automatically downloaded wirelessly from the bus.

More than 1,000 Metrobuses already are equipped with security cameras aimed at passenger areas and outside the front of buses to document and deter accidents, crimes and conflicts, Metro spokesman Reggie Woodruff said. If the video on those cameras is not retrieved within a couple of days, the cameras record over it.

Metro is installing the new cameras on buses and training drivers 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 operational 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 company contracted to conduct the program, will analyze data from any incidents and provide it to Metro to promote better driving habits and to 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 in Ballston this month and a bus that crashed into a yard in Silver Spring in July -- Metro's bus accident rate has been declining, according to data from the agency. The bus accident rate for fiscal year 2010, which ended June 30, was 1.57 accidents for every 100,000 miles. "Those were preventable accidents," where the Metrobus operator was at least partly at fault, Requa said. The year before, the rate was 1.79, and in fiscal 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 reduce damage to buses, workers' compensation claims and injuries. Improved driving habits by bus operators, such as not driving too fast or accelerating too quickly between stops, will help save fuel, Woodruff said.

Jackie Jeter, head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most frontline Metro employees, did not object to the cameras but said they too narrowly focused on driver skills. She said broader safety measures are needed, including assigning more police officers to prevent assaults on bus drivers.

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

"As part of our commitment to safety, we currently have 56 Washington Gas vehicles that were recently equipped with DriveCam," said Ruben Rodriguez, director of corporate communications for Washington Gas. He said the company hasn't reached conclusions about the cameras' effectiveness.

Design work is in progress to install cameras on Metro's rail cars, but there is no installation timeline, Woodruff said. The 7000 series rail cars, scheduled for delivery beginning in 2013, will come with cameras, he said.

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