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Most riders like what they hear as buses 'talk'


Clarence Knox said he sold his "talking car" two months ago because its electronic announcements about unlocked doors and unbuckled seat belts got on his nerves.

But memories of it came back yesterday in the form of a "talking bus."

"It can be annoying -- every stop it makes, it announces it. Sounds like the car we had," said Mr. Knox, 32, on a morning ride on the MTA.

For the next 60 days, the Mass Transit Administration will test a digital voice system in five buses in an effort to make commuting easier for riders and bus drivers. Yesterday, the MTA was trying the technology on its No. 64 line.

Despite Mr. Knox's reaction, most people on trips from downtown Baltimore to Wagner's Point and back seemed to approve.

"A lot of people don't know where they're going," said Fay Gruber, 55, who was on her way to work. "Now they don't have to look out for the street signs. They can just listen."

Silas Hurt, 64, agreed. "They should keep it," he said. "A lot of times the bus driver doesn't call off each stop."

When riders step on the bus, a computerized, recorded voice tells them the line and destination. As a stop approaches, the voice announces it.

If there are delays or problems, the device -- the size of shoe box -- can play up to five extra messages. All of this is accomplished when the bus driver pushes a button.

At about $3,500 per bus, the system could cost the MTA about $3 million, said Ron Freeland, director of transit operations. He said he hopes to obtain federal grants to pay 70 percent to 80 percent of the cost.

After a demonstration period, the MTA will conduct customer surveys, Mr. Freeland said. If the system gets wide approval, the agency will install the device in nearly all of its 850 buses. But the agency plans to test a similar system from one other company before making the decision, he said.

The MTA is also considering installing the computerized voices on its light rail and metro cars and on Maryland Rail Commuter trains.

Digital Recorders Transit Communication Systems, a North Carolina company, is paying for the current demonstration. Its Talking Bus device has been installed in more than 20 public transit systems in 18 states, said Bruce Thomas, a vice president for sales.

Among the vehicles with its installations are shuttle buses at New York's John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports, said Robin Burk, another Digital Recorders vice president.

Across the country, digital voice technology has become a popular way to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991, which requires the announcement of bus stops and transfer points, said Dennis Kouba, a spokesman for the American Public Transit Association.

Bus drivers in Maryland already announce stops to comply with the act. MTA officials said they are considering a digital voice system to ensure consistency and clarity of announcements.

Daniel Pinkney, a driver on the MTA's No. 64 line, said yesterday that he liked the innovation. "With this new system, it'll be a whole lot better because sometimes you miss a stop," he said. "It helps me to concentrate a little more on my driving. It's very helpful."

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