URBANA – The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District is moving full speed ahead into the security camera age, adding hundreds of cameras on its fleet of buses and vans.
By the end of this year the MTD could have nearly 1,000 cameras recording video images inside and outside its buses, as well as at bus stops and at its Illinois Terminal building in downtown Champaign. Eventually there also will be cameras at bus stops along the busy White Street corridor that connects downtown Champaign and the University of Illinois campus.
The video cameras already have proven their value in recording criminal activity and accidents on streets, helping with investigations of accidents involving MTD vehicles, verifying or disproving complaints against MTD drivers and deterring crime, according to officials with the transit system.
The MTD's largest buses – the 60-foot-long articulated models – are each being fitted with 15 cameras, while smaller 40- and 30-foot models will get five to eight cameras. MTD vans will get three or four cameras. In all cases, the cameras record images both inside and outside the buses.
The average cost of the video systems is about $7,075 per bus, according to Karl Gnadt, the MTD director of market development. The money comes from state grants and local funds, Gnadt said.
The new system is a big improvement, said Tracey Pettigrew, the MTD's safety and operations assistant.
"We can see a lot more things with it. It's a clearer image so you can pick up faces and other details," Pettigrew said. "That will help, whether it's our police buddies or just figuring out what happens on our bus."
"It's a lot better, especially at night and in low-light conditions," added Dave Moore, the MTD's director of maintenance. "It can record a lot longer than the old system. And when you're looking at video, you can have a Google map next to the video so you can watch the bus go down the street as you watch the video.
"Similar to a black box we'll be able to look at the video and we will be able to see if the throttle was applied, the brake applied, right turn signal, left turn signal, whether the four-ways (flashers) were on. We'll be able to see the recorded speed. That's all part of the system."
"It's even supposed to tell us if we took a turn too hard," Pettigrew said.
The MTD has had cameras on buses for at least 25 years, Moore said.
"The biggest way they have helped us is with liability," Pettigrew said. "When people get on the bus and say, 'Hey, I tripped and fell because your bus pulled away too quick,' we get that often enough so that we can look to our camera system to see what we can do to lessen our liability. We can prove that it didn't happen the way they said it did."
The cameras also can help resolve complaints against drivers, Pettigrew said.
"We'll have someone call and say, 'Your bus cut me off' or "I was waiting at the stop and your bus just blew right by me.' Or an operator might write up a report about a confrontation on the bus," he said. "We just pull the video and take a look."
Tom Costello, the MTD's assistant director, said, "the camera shows that most of the time the employee did what he is supposed to do."
"That's not to say that on occasion we look and we say, 'Oh my goodness, we need to do something about this.' I don't think we're claiming that we're perfect. There are things that just sometimes go wrong. But we can also see why it went wrong and how we can fix it. It's a good management tool."
Pettigrew said he believes the cameras deter crime.
"They see the cameras," he said of MTD riders. "They know about them for the most part, but sometimes they still do the craziest things. We hope that people who get on there to cause problems look up and see the cameras and change their mind."
The MTD cameras have proven invaluable to police, said Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney.
"They've caught things just driving by. We solved a number of crimes with MTD cameras," he said.
Pettigrew said the MTD frequently gets calls from police for video to help solve crimes.
"People getting hit by cars, the first thing the police will do is figure out if there was a bus nearby. Or if there's a gas station robbery, they'll check just to see," Pettigrew said.
An MTD supervisor's van recently captured video of a crash at Florida Avenue and Philo Road.
"A truck blew a light and hit a car," Pettigrew said. "There were five or six guys in the truck and they got out and ran. We were at least able to immediately identify the number of people in the vehicle before the police got there. Stuff like that happens all the time."
In another recent case, Crimestoppers used an MTD video to try to identify a person who had picked up a wallet that had been left on a bus, and soon began using credit cards inside.
Last year the MTD posted photographs of two young men who had broken the glass at a bus shelter on Lincoln Avenue.
"We took the video and we made a still shot and posted it and we said, 'Do you know these two people? We'd like to talk to them,'" Costello said.
"The kids who did it saw it and went to student legal services. We got a call from an attorney who said, 'How much do we have to pay to make this go away?'
"We didn't need to pursue anything beyond that because they paid up for their bad decision."
Finally, there's the story of a motorist on Country Fair Drive in Champaign who claimed that a bus hit her.
"The police come," Costello said, "and she says that the bus backed into her car. A (MTD) supervisor shows up and said, 'Ma'am, you realize that we have cameras on the buses that will show us what the bus did.'"
"She looks at the cop and says, 'Never mind.'"