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Originally published Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 7:55 PM

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Portland buses try pedestrian-alert technologies

Hoping to wake up the growing number of pedestrians distracted by smartphones and other electronic devices on the street, Portland-area TriMet will give “talking buses” another try on five bus lines starting Monday.

The Oregonian

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PORTLAND — Hoping to wake up the growing number of pedestrians distracted by smartphones and other electronic devices on the street, TriMet will give “talking buses” another try on five bus lines starting Monday.

Currently, audible pedestrian warning systems are used by a just a handful of U.S. transit agencies, but bus drivers across the country are increasingly complaining about near misses with distracted walkers glued to their gadgets, TriMet officials said.

With the help of a $400,000 grant, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has decided to use the Portland area as a test market for four emerging pedestrian-alert technologies.

“Very little is known about the effectiveness of these pedestrian-warning systems and this lack of knowledge prompted the FTA to sponsor TriMet’s demonstration project,” said Harry Saporta, TriMet executive director of safety and security.

In 2011, months after bus driver Sandi Day hit five pedestrians in a Portland crosswalk during an illegal left turn, Oregon’s largest transit agency tried a $46,000 audible system warning pedestrians about turning buses. The glitchy experiment, which was seen as more of a nuisance by drivers, pedestrians and riders, didn’t last long.

During a demonstration at the Gateway Transit Center on Saturday morning, TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said that the onboard systems, triggered when drivers turn their wheels, have advanced a great deal since the last test and the agency is “hopeful” that at least one of the three technologies will be worth pursuing.

Altstadt said TriMet will be working with the FTA to test the new warning systems and provide information for other U.S. transit agencies interested in the technology. TriMet is also partnering with AEM Corporation and Portland State University to evaluate the performance of the warning systems.

During the 2011 experiment, a woman’s voice gave a gentle warning in English and Spanish over an external speaker — “Pedestrians, bus is turning” — whenever the driver turned the wheel, warning pedestrians that 16 tons of metal and exhaust was rolling into the crosswalk.

Often, however, the audible alert didn’t go off until a bus was in the middle of the crosswalk.

TriMet pulled the plug on the pilot after a couple of months.

In addition to the three onboard-warning systems, TriMet will also start testing a fixed-location warning sign in downtown Portland at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Burnside Street.

The electronic sign, above the pedestrian signal, will light up the word “BUS” when a bus approaches for a turn.

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