Smoother bus rides promised with 'black boxes'

By Mathew Dearnaley

Operator hopes feedback system will improve passengers' safety and comfort.

John Waters, of NZ Bus in Auckland, shows off the latest safety device. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Waters, of NZ Bus in Auckland, shows off the latest safety device. Photo / Greg Bowker

Auckland's largest bus operator is promising passengers smoother rides from "black boxes" to monitor drivers' performance.

NZ Bus says the equipment being rolled out initially on its North Shore fleet is primarily for drivers to keep an eye on their own performance.

It will allow them to correct their driving if any of five lights on a vertical console to the right of their steering wheels turns from green to amber or - in extreme cases such as emergency braking or lurching too fast around corners - to red.

The five factors measured by the lights are rider comfort in terms of cornering, engine idling, braking, acceleration and speeding.

But the company can also download data for driver training and fuel efficiency purposes from the telematic machines it expects to install on most of its 1000 or so buses in Auckland, Whangarei and Wellington by the end of the year.

Chief operating officer Shane McMahon said while demonstrating the technology to the Herald yesterday that although the main aim was to give staff instant feedback on their performance, the company would also use it as "a secondary information service" to reinforce a major training programme it began about 15 months ago for all its drivers regardless of their experience.

"If we can pinpoint drivers who need assistance, we will obviously sit down with them and have a chat about what additional training can

be provided," he said.

"The more tools we can give people to become professional drivers, the better it is for public transport and achieving passenger growth targets."

Although black box cockpit voice recorders in aircraft became controversial among pilots in the 1990s after their use in court action, bus union leaders are giving the project qualified approval, after being assured the company will have a "conversation" with any staff needing to mend their ways before it resorts to any disciplinary action.

Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt believes most drivers will welcome the innovation, which the company says will complement its "Pathways to Safer Driving" programme - in which it is in the midst of providing 18 hours of refresher training across four modules including customer service, and driving and personal safety.

"I don't think the disciplinary process will be invoked at all - the drivers in most cases will listen to what they are being told," Mr Froggatt said.

"It will improve the performance of the drivers and hopefully cut down on the amount of speeding tickets they are getting."

He said monitoring lights coupled with beeps when buses are travelling too fast would help to make up for an absence of a 50km/h mark on speedometers in the company's predominantly European-made fleet.

But he said one line of older Japanese buses which the company was phasing out made it "impossible" for drivers to give passengers smooth rides while braking.

Mr McMahon said the new equipment had been installed in about 50 of its North Star buses, and was being extensively tested and calibrated

by experienced drivers before being put into service by October.

"The drivers really appreciate the real-time feedback - it has become a real competition to see howmuch time they can keep it in the green."

The project follows major company investments in more than 200 new buses in Auckland in the past 18 months for about $80 million, and in new depots at Mt Roskill and Onehunga.

Better bus trips

Black boxes
*About 50 already installed in North Shore buses - most of the rest of the 1000-strong NZ Bus fleet to be fitted out by Christmas.
*Five lights on a vertical console turn from green to amber or - in extreme cases such as emergency braking or lurching too fast around corners - to red.
*The five factors measured by the lights are cornering, engine idling, braking, acceleration and speeding.
*18 hours of refresher training for about 1000 drivers.

- NZ Herald

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