King County Metro Transit has equipped 10 buses with automated warnings, in an experiment to protect pedestrians. At the UW, trucks are being outfitted with side shields, so bicyclists don’t fall under the wheels.

Share story

Sonja Woodard was staring down at her phone, walking on Third Avenue across Columbia Street, when a bus spoke at her.

“Caution, bus is turning; cuidado, autobús está virando,” an automated female voice said, while the driver made a right turn toward Seattle’s waterfront.

Woodard suddenly looked up, and slowed to avoid the bus, as did a few other people walking nearby.

So goes an experiment by King County Metro Transit, which has installed strobes and speakers on the exterior of 10 buses.

As more people walk through a growing city, and roughly one-third are glued to their phones and tablets, the potential for danger has increased — as has the available technology.

Metro reports seven incidents in which turning buses struck pedestrians last year, and one in the first quarter of this year.

For the next month, the specially outfitted buses will run on Route 11, from downtown through the pedestrian-filled Pike-Pine and Madison Park areas; and other lines. Test buses traveled Thursday on Third Avenue, and circled Pioneer Square.

If the talking buses proliferate, they could bring a greater din to many neighborhoods, along with arguments over the sound levels and hours of use.

The University of Washington announced its own safety innovation this week, adding steel skirts to the sides of its 31 delivery trucks, so bicyclists won’t fall under the wheels.

UW will display a truck Friday near its Rainier Vista entrance, close to the UW Medical Center, to mark National Bike to Work Day.

Officials got the idea from Boston, said fleet-services manager George Donegan. Considering 70,000 people are on campus each day, including 4,000 on bicycles, the safety benefits are clearly worth the $1,200 to $2,400 to equip each truck, he said.

Last year, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh ordered all heavy city trucks, and those owned by contractors such as garbage haulers, to install guards, following seven fatal truck-bike collisions since 2010, reports Boston magazine.

New York City is adding shields to 200 trucks this year, and could eventually equip about 4,700 trucks.

Nationally, an estimated 110 people on foot, on bikes, and on motorcycles die per year falling under trucks, says the Volpe center, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Some long-haul trucks use side skirts to reduce drag and save on fuel.

In Seattle, bicyclist Bryce Lewis was killed by a right-turning dump truck at the University Bridge in 2007. Lance David died in 2013 on his ride to work, under the rear wheels of a turning semitruck in Sodo. Last week, a bicyclist on South Jackson Street fell under a Metro bus, suffering serious injuries.

Josh Kavanagh, UW transportation director, said there haven’t been similar crashes during his eight years on campus. But when he worked at the University of New Mexico, he said, he witnessed a man skateboard beneath a moving truck as a stunt.

“In a university environment, it is a very busy place, and people have their priorities at any particular moment, whether that’s looking at their cellphone, or pulling off a neat trick,” he said.

Noise level

At King County Metro, the bus warnings cost about $4,000 per vehicle and resemble warnings used in Cleveland and New Jersey, said Kevin Desmond, Metro general manager.

Among other issues, Metro will monitor whether the frequent warnings, set for now at 90 decibels, make life unpleasant for people who live or relax nearby.

“That is one of the challenges with the talking-bus acceptance,” Desmond said. “What does it mean downtown when buses are talking all the time? What does it mean in a residential neighborhood?”

Citizens complained about noise in Portland in 2011 and 2014, when Tri-Met experimented with talking buses, news reports said.

The automated bus voice in Seattle is similar to what transit riders hear inside light-rail trains and in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.

Woodard said after her encounter Thursday, “I stopped and thought, ‘Is she talking to me?’ I knew immediately what it was.

“I like the pleasant female voice. I really hope it saves people.”

But in Pioneer Square, piledriving north of CenturyLink Field drowned out even the 90-decibel bus warnings — and forced Metro to move a news conference two blocks.

Warnings turn on when a bus driver turns the front wheels 22 ½ degrees to the right, and a lesser angle turning left. At least one test driver is trying to warn pedestrians early, by turning the wheels while the bus is stopped, according to outreach workers on Third Avenue.

Automated warnings are designed mainly to prevent crashes in front of the bus, where on some vehicle models, a section of the frame known as the A pillar creates a notorious blind spot during right turns.

King County’s training sessions last year reminded drivers to use the “rock-and-roll” technique, in which they lean fore and aft in the driver’s seat, and examine the corners, before a turn.

Besides safety, there’s an economic question.

The $100,000 in spending, on everything from equipment to planning, includes money from the county’s self-insurance fund. Metro says it paid $14.2 million in claims on 24 bus-pedestrian injury crashes since 2009, an indication of how expensive even one crash can be to taxpayers, as the fleet covers 47 million miles a year.