The Big Blue Bus Safety Sensors

Santa Monica College students wait for the Big Blue Bus on Pico and 18th Street at the Santa Monica College’s Main Campus. Dianna Parra-Garcia

Santa Monica College students wait for the Big Blue Bus on Pico and 18th Street at the Santa Monica College’s Main Campus. Dianna Parra-Garcia

Having lost a friend hit by a semi truck two years ago, SMC Bike Club member Justin Okubo understands just how tragic traffic accidents can be. He even cited a recent incident where his friend was hit by a charter bus, on Wednesday, Sept. 27.

"He was riding, and there was some debris in his way, so he had to move out to avoid it," Okubo said. "The bus passes him too closely... then the draft of the bus just pulls him into it."

Santa Monica has recently been making efforts to address concerns like Okubo's. Four months ago, the Santa Monica Mobility Division worked with the Big Blue Bus to install sensors on Big Blue Buses in an attempt to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. The company stated that they made these changes in response to multiple incidents that occurred between March and April of this year when five pedestrians were killed by oncoming traffic.

These installations are part of a new initiative called the Collision Avoidance System Pilot Program, offered by the company Mobileye. According to its website, the system consists of four sensors placed on Big Blue Buses that will warn the drivers 2.7 seconds in advance before an imminent rear-end collision. They also immediately give an auditory and visual warning if the bus exceeds the speed limit, departs from its lane without a turn signal, or is about to collide with pedestrians or cyclists.

One of the Big Blue Bus drivers, Deborah Morrison, has already experienced driving with the new system. "I mean I keep my eyes moving anyway, but it is helpful to the bus system that it beeps," Morrison said. "If somebody is crossing in front of the bus, you might be focused on something else or a passenger, so it's very helpful."

Quinton Johnson, a bus passenger who has been using the Big Blue Bus to commute for about ten years, was also familiar with the sensor system. Johnson believed these recent collisions with pedestrians happened frequently because he often sees passengers put their safety at risk to catch the bus. "People try to come out sometimes. Usually, they're mentally ill or just got out the hospital," Johnson said. "They are trying to stop the bus from missing them."

According to the LA Times, traffic accidents have risen nearly 43 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year. Santa Monica administrators hope that this newly developed system will reduce the number of collisions in the area.

Cyclists at Santa Monica College had mixed opinions about the new initiative. Joshua Bonilla, President of the SMC Bike Club, complimented the efforts of the Big Blue Bus and Santa Monica. "It's obviously for the safety of the pedestrian and also for the bus drivers to avoid collisions... it's a benefit for everyone," Bonilla said. "Pedestrians now feel safer knowing there is a system that will help prevent future incidents."

However, the Vice-President of the SMC Bike Club, Ali Narimi, thought the sensors are not addressing the real issue cyclists face. "They should teach their drivers more to care more about pedestrians first rather than just adding something to the bus," Narimi said. "A lot of times has happened when I make eye contact with the driver on the left side and he starts coming in front of me."

Justin Okubo agrees with Narimi that reckless driving is the main issue behind traffic collisions with cyclists. Although he approves of the new system, Okubo says, "I find it kind of sad how we need sensors to help us say, 'That's a human being right there. This is someone's life we can possibly endanger ...until they [drivers] see us as human beings that have families and just want to get home safe, I don't think anything is going to change."

However, Okubo does conclude that the changes are "a step in the right direction."