If you didn’t listen to your mom when she warned not to cross the street before looking both ways, now you have to listen to the bus.

A handful of cities nationwide are running pilot programs to test an automated voice warning system on buses to alert pedestrians before they cross the street.

Ten buses driven by Portland, Ore.’s transit agency, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), recently were equipped with an external audible warning system. The units are installed in the steering column and when the wheel hits a 45-degree angle, the alert is triggered, announcing “Pedestrians, bus is turning.” The warning is in English and Spanish.

Each bus has a circuit board located behind the driver, who can set the steering point at which the voice is triggered, the announcement’s volume and the frequency of the warning. For example, at midnight a driver may want to lower the volume to avoid disturbing nearby neighborhoods. Some systems also include GPS. Two external speakers are mounted onto both sides at the front of the bus and announce when the bus is making a turn.

“We are testing whether the audible announcement helps pedestrians and bicyclists be more aware of the bus turning; we’re asking does it help them be safer?” said Mary Fetsch, spokeswoman for TriMet.

The move was inspired by a tragedy two years ago. A TriMet bus driver made a quick turn through an intersection, hitting five pedestrians and killing two of them, said Fetsch.

TriMet paid $46,000 — $4,600 per bus — to Washington state-based TranCert Marketing for the units and their installation for the pilot project. Fetsch said the pilot will last a couple of months as TriMet takes pedestrian and operator surveys to test if the system is effective on Portland streets.

Cleveland was the first city to adopt the audible voice warnings. Last year the city’s transportation department replaced loud beeps that were activated by a bus’s turn signal.

Since the devices were installed in April 2010, Cleveland has had zero bus-pedestrian collisions from left- or right-hand turns, said Pamela McCombe, safety director of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. She attributes that to the automatic voice system.

McCombe came up with the idea for the voice systems after she recognized that drivers and vehicle operators become less alert after several hours of driving. Drivers could potentially forget to use their turn signals, McCombe said.

“I wanted to help the operators, to remind them that when they approach an intersection that they have to become alert and look down and across the crosswalk,” she said. “I wanted something where the operator didn’t have control over it.”

Inspired by the home voice alert systems that are triggered during a fire, McCombe wanted something that would trigger automatically in the steering column. She contacted TranCert to help develop the device. TranCert is now selling the systems to cities nationwide, including Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Portland.

Units and installation prices range from $1,200 to $5,000 based on the specifics of the bus, said McCombe.

Portland’s system is so new that no feedback has been given yet, said Fetsch. Cleveland’s feedback from the public has been mixed. “There’s always comments made in the beginning, and then they get used to it,” McCombe said. “Some positive, some not. It depends on how close you live to the bus route.”

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer