Three of Howard Transit's bright green buses are to be equipped with five surveillance cameras each next month in a free demonstration of digital wireless technology.
The system can provide clear digital pictures and audio recordings - much clearer than older VHS tape cameras can - in an experiment that officials of Verint hope will help them perfect wireless uses.
The firm, based in Melville, N.Y., with a Columbia office on Guilford Road, wants to use Howard County's proximity to the Interstate 95 corridor to try different systems and improve them. The East Coast freeway is dotted with communications towers, the company said, making it a good place to work with wireless technology.
"Four miles from I-95 is the best you can get. If we can't make in work in Columbia, we can't make it work in Ames, (Iowa) or Tupelo (Miss.)," said Rod Matheson, the firm's technical director, who predicted that in five years wireless systems will be standard nationally.
The county's transportation board endorsed the idea despite misgivings about loss of privacy, but members felt the four- to six-month program is worth trying, especially because it is free.
"I have mixed feelings," said board Chairwoman Andrea Paskin. "I felt kind of uncomfortable" about the privacy issue, she said, but decided that a free trial would not hurt.
Don Eames, another board member who owns the Airport Shuttle van service, said he likes the idea and uses one camera in each of his firm's vans.
His drivers were a bit leery at first, he said, until a sideswipe collision occurred and the camera showed that the other driver was at fault.
"We had a beautiful picture of our van in his lane. We had absolute proof of the driver's good performance." Now, his drivers "are all on board," he said.
The tiny cameras mounted in small, round plastic bubbles can monitor drivers and passengers and are mainly used to discourage lawsuits, several officials said.
"We see it helping more frequently in the area of complaint resolution," said Ray Ambrose, manager of the 26-bus Howard Transit system for the Corridor Transportation Corp.
Matheson said the firm's goal is to produce the right video and audio that a bus system official or bank manager needs - and quickly - through wireless technology, instead of manually retrieving a tape and then scrolling through hours of useless footage.
A question about whether a fare was paid, the wheelchair lift worked properly or someone slipped on a step or used abusive language could be resolved by reviewing the video, which will be digitally stored on a hard drive.
"If there is an incident, we'll have a record," Ambrose said. Ambrose said Howard Transit has 2.19 accidents per 100,000 miles or about 10 to 15 accidents a year, mostly minor fender-benders.
Each bus will be equipped with a camera looking out over the dashboard, one aimed at the entry steps, one at the wheelchair lift, one looking back along the interior aisle from the front, and another looking to the front from the rear. The cameras are remote-controlled. The hard drive sits in the bus, on a spring-loaded hosing to prevent bumps from affecting the picture.
Matheson said the firm has similar pilot programs operating in San Francisco, San Antonio, Texas, and two cities in Iowa, as well as in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Lisbon, Portugal, and has cameras on 2,000 school buses throughout North America.
The system would cost $5,000 to $8,000 per bus commercially, he said.
Shock sensors can automatically trigger the cameras in case of an accident, or they can be manipulated from a command center if a bus driver pushes a "panic" button during an incident aboard a bus.
So alerted, the cameras can then feed live video back to the center, instead of having employees retrieve a recording later.
Howard County schools have had video school bus cameras since 1991, said Glenn Johnson, transportation director, but the system has only two videotape cameras that are moved from bus to bus as complaints warrant.
Cameras are becoming so common they are hard to avoid for the privacy-conscious.
"More and more, if you don't like being on camera you'll end up going nowhere," Ambrose said.