Devices being tested on buses to keep pedestrians safe

In downtown Portland, downtown Gresham, near the Beaverton Town Center or any other congested area in the region, it’s easy to spot “distracted walkers” — pedestrians who don’t look where they are going, frequently because they are talking or texting on their smartphones.

TriMet bus operators encounter hundreds of them every day and frequently have to take evasive action to avoid an accident. So far, none of the pedestrians has been hit and seriously injured. But some operators have had to make hard stops to avoid them.

For example, according to TriMet, on July 21, a pedestrian with a cell phone dropped it in the street at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Morrison Street and bent down to pick it up, apparently oblivious that the Line 33 bus was approaching. The operator had to brake hard to avoid hitting the pedestrian, but a small boy riding the bus fell off the seat and started to cry. Luckily, the pedestrian and the boy were not injured.

Earlier that month, the operator of the Line 57 bus driving through Forest Grove had to brake hard when a pedestrian walked out in front of it, seemingly unaware it was coming. An elderly passenger preparing to get off the bus fell. Fortunately, the pedestrian and passenger avoided serious injury.

And even earlier this year, a Line 71 operator turning left onto Southeast 92nd Avenue from Sandy Boulevard had to hit the brakes hard when a young man walked out in front of it, not realizing the danger.

To prevent future accidents, TriMet will test five devices in coming months to warn pedestrians and bicyclists of approaching buses. The tests will be funded by a $400,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The agency awarded TriMet $100,000 more than it requested, demonstrating the national concern about the issue.

“Nothing will replace the awareness and diligence of drivers and pedestrians to prevent collisions, but the hope is that these secondary warning devices will create an additional layer of safety for people around our buses,” says Harry Saporta, TriMet’s executive director of Safety, Security and Environmental Services.

Saporta described the tests — officially known as the Pedestrian Collision Warnin g Demonstration Project — to TriMet’s board of directors at its Oct. 23 meeting. Several members said they understood distracted walking was a serious and growing problem that the regional transit agency must address.

TriMet has designed the tests and installed the equipment since March in partnership with Portland State University and Advanced Engineering Management, a private assessment company. The tests begin this month and continue through May 2014. The results will be evaluated and documented in a report by November of next year.

Onboard devices

This tests are coming at a time when “distracted walking” is beginning to draw as much attention as distracted driving. A nationwide study by Ohio State University released this summer found that injuries related to using a cell phone while walking more than doubled from 2005 to 2010. If trends continue, the number of injuries will double again between 2010 and 2015.

Four of the devices are mounted on the buses. One, the Protran Technology Safe Turn Alert, uses both an audible warning and LED strobe lights to warn when a bus is turning into an intersection. Two of the devices use only an audible warning. They are the Clever Devices Turn Warning System and a system made by Transit Tech Solutions. The fourth, the DINEX STAR LED headlight, is a visual warning system.

TriMet also will test a crosswalk light that warns of approaching buses above the pedestrian. It has been installed above the pedestrian walk/don’t walk signal at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Burnside Street.

Eighty-nine buses will be used in the test, 51 with warning devices engaged and 38 without devices. The tentative plan is to use the onboard devices on bus lines 8, 15, 17, 44 and 75. The fixed-location device will be turned on in mid to late November, when the other devices go live.

TriMet tried an audible warning system on a small number of buses in early 2011. The tests were conducted as part of a safety review after the April 2010 bus crash that killed two pedestrians in Old Town. TriMet concluded the technology was not fully developed, however, and hopes the new devices work better.

To measure the effectiveness of the devices, TriMet will work with a peer review panel of transit industry professionals. Bus operators participating in the tests will fill out weekly questionnaires and complete a comprehensive survey at the end of the testing period. Riders and community members will be questioned about their perceptions of the usefulness of the warning devices. Focus groups with operators and the public also will be conducted. Maintenance workers, station managers, field supervisors and other managers will be interviewed about their perceptions of the devices. And TriMet will communicate with other transit agencies about their effectiveness in preventing accidents.

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