Howard County will test a state-of-the-art surveillance system on three public buses over the next few months in a partnership with a private security firm based in New York, transportation officials said.
The three Howard Transit buses each will be outfitted with five cameras that will wirelessly transmit live video in real time to transit management offices, said Ray Ambrose, transit administrator. Ambrose said that he hopes the cameras will allow the bus service to better investigate customer complaints or accidents.
"It's looking at the overall performance [of the buses] and also providing that visual documentation we may need when we're not on the bus and some incidents may occur," he said.
The cameras have already been installed on a bus traveling the purple route between Laurel Mall and Elkridge. Each camera is positioned at a different angle: facing the front roadway, the stairwell, the driver and farebox, the aisle and the rear wheelchair lift. Ambrose said that two more buses will have the cameras by mid-July, though he was not sure what routes they will travel.
The private security firm, Verint Systems Inc., approached county officials with the idea for the pilot program last month, Ambrose said. The company has a similar contract in San Francisco and installed a digital video security and surveillance system at Dulles International Airport in 2003. Verint did not charge the county for the equipment for the pilot program, which is expected to last four to six months. Ambrose said the company is still testing the technology.
Carl Balser, Howard's chief of transportation and planning, said the county will probably wait at least a year before deciding whether to continue the program. He said he was not sure how much it would cost to install the cameras on all of the county's 26 buses.
Balser estimated that county officials receive five to 10 complaints each month for which the cameras could prove useful. Few, however, have been as serious as an incident about two weeks ago in the District, where security cameras on a Metrobus recorded a man hurling a baseball-size rock at the driver. About 100 of the 1,460 Metrobuses were equipped with cameras; the incident prompted union leaders there to call for more.
Still, the issue of surveillance cameras in public places remains a controversial one. Red-light cameras have been in use in Maryland for several years, but remain a hot topic among drivers. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed a bill this year that would have allowed Montgomery County to install video cameras to catch speeding drivers, saying that the cameras would be an unnecessary invasion of privacy.
Ambrose said that his office does not have the staff to monitor video from the bus cameras continuously and that the footage would be used to investigate accidents or complaints. He said signs will be placed on buses with cameras to notify riders. And Balser said riders should remember that buses are public places.
"I think there's an expectation that you give up a certain amount of privacy when you get on a bus or a subway," he said. "I understand that people have concerns. But I think this is no more intrusive than, say, traffic cameras or cameras at a bank. It's actually for the protection of the vast majority of folks who are doing what they should be doing."