MTA test-drives vocal device to aid the blind

Rolling along Fort Avenue yesterday on an MTA bus, Helen Hayes heard a soothing female voice speak to her. It told her that the next intersection would be at Boyle Street.

For the 55-year-old blind Baltimore woman, it was a revelation. "I've never heard of that street," she said. Hayes had never heard of it because she and other blind bus patrons have had to rely, not always successfully, on bus drivers or fellow riders to call out cross streets.


By spring, 80 of the Mass Transit Administration's newest buses will be equipped with Intelligent Vehicle Network devices that will announce intersections, transfers and stops to ease public transportation for the blind. Another 100 new buses with the devices will roll out next year, said Ruth F. Silverstone, director of interagency programs and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the Maryland Mass Transit Administration.

During the next three years, 250 additional buses will be retrofitted with the equipment. Officials estimate it could be 10 years before every bus has the technology.


MTA officials say the devices, which are manufactured by a New York firm and cost $10,000 each, will help all bus patrons, including tourists and people who have trouble reading street signs. Similar devices are used in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Dallas.

"We did some test rides Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and people said they were very pleased," said Aaron Smith, manager of bus operations for the MTA. "We've had no complaints."

Blind transit patrons, including Hayes, had a similar reaction yesterday, when about 40 of them took a test drive not far from the Johnson Street headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. When the female voice announced the first cross street, many in the group cheered.

"Oh, that sounds neat," said Charles Biebl, 48, of Baltimore, who used to ride the bus to work in Columbia. Biebl, who is blind, said it could be difficult to tell where he was along the route unless he asked the driver for help.

After witnessing similar disregard for blind bus passengers during a 1999 visit to Baltimore, the head of a Boston-based advocacy group for the disabled filed suit against the MTA in an effort to force the agency to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that stops be announced.

According to Gayle Hafner, co-chair of ADAPT, an advocacy group that addresses transportation issues for the disabled in the greater Baltimore area, it was the lawsuit, plus pressure from activists, that resulted in the "talking" bus the MTA unveiled yesterday.