Metro's pedestrian alert light program left to wither

Three years ago, on Valentines' Day in 2007, Sally McGee and Martha Schoenborn, both of Alexandria, were struck and killed by a Metrobus at the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The bus driver, Victor Kolako, struck the women as they crossed with a walk signal in the crosswalk. Kolako was charged with negligent homicide and later sentenced to a year in prison. Metro had seen a rash of bus fatalities that year, and newly-minted General Manager John Catoe vowed to improve safety.

Safety at Metro has gotten a lot of attention in the past year, with the June 22 Red Line crash, the subsequent worker deaths, so on and so forth. Metrobus safety has also been back in the spotlight, highlighted by a Metrobus striking a pedestrian in Dupont Circle last summer. That incident was also followed closely by another pedestrian death in Trinidad.

How good of a job has Metro been doing at keeping up safety on Metrobus? One of the safety campaigns touted by WMATA and Catoe after the Valentines' Day accident involved high visibility lights on Metrobuses. These lights were placed on the front of the bus and flashed back and forth. The lights were a good step, they did make buses more visible, especially in a pedestrian's peripheral vision. You've probably seen these lights on some buses.

What happened with this seemingly good idea? Well, like all good things, it came to an end. Prompted by seeing a bus with the light bar installed but not active, I asked Metro about the status of the project. According to Metro spokesperson Ron Holzer, the program was a pilot that involved 100 buses in the District of Columbia. Holzer said that jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland never approved usage of the lights. In some cases buses outfitted with the pedestrian alert lights have been transferred out of the District, and the light bars were deactivated. The program was never expanded beyond the 100 initial buses. I also asked if the bus that struck Amanda Mahnke was outfitted with the lights. Due to ongoing litigation, Holzer declined to answer the question. I've dug up a few photos from the day of the crash, and it looks as though that bus was not outfitted with the lights.

While it's difficult to know how many accidents might have been prevented with the usage of these alert lights, it's disappointing to see the program left to wither. As the lights break, or the buses get transferred out of the District, the lights will go away. Given the high price tag of accidents, both in human lives and dollars spent in litigation, it seems a project like this would be well worth the initial investment.

Is this just another case of Metro talking the talk after an accident, but failing to follow through? Reading through a press release after a deadly crash in 2007 feels like reading the same press releases from 2009.

Photo originally by flickr user taftbasket. Modified for emphasis.


  1. I gotta be honest. These lights seem pretty ridiculous. I mean, this is A BUS. It's huge. It already has a glowing marquee on the front.

    If a pedestrian didn't notice A BUS before stepping into the street, how would the cylon eye being there, or not, really have changed things? When you say "they made the buses more visible," is that your opinion, or was research done showing that there are situations where someone who (presumably was never trained to look both ways before crossing the street) was less likely to step in front of a bus with them, versus without them?

    My point here is, there will be accidents. Sometimes they will be because a bus driver was negligent. Sometimes they will be because a pedsestrian was stupid. Sometimes they will involve a combination of both factors.

    But really - how far will you go to improve visibility for something that's already about 10 times more visible than every other vehicle on the road?

    At some point it just makes no difference - and the downsides can even outweigh the very minor positives. For example, have you seen those strobe lights the put on school buses in Montgomery County? They are also designed to improve visibility of giant yellow objects. What they do to me when I am driving behind one when it's dark outside, is cause me to have spots in front of my eyes and actually dramatically reduce my ability to drive safely.

  2. Is this a case of Metro failing to follow through with its plan, or is it the larger issue of three different municipalities who all but refuse to cooperate with one another when it comes to issues affecting Metro? Keep in mind these are the same states (VA and MD) that refuse to fund the public transportation that helps fuel the majority of their respective economies, because constituents in Podunksboro get their panties in a twist.

    There needs to be a way to sideline this political BS. Federalization of the entire Metro system, perhaps? Or would this just add another layer of bureaucratic sludge on an already broken system?

  3. I can't tell you for sure about any research (hell, thanks to WaPo's archive paywall, I can't even find articles about this program, and it only began 2-3 years ago). I can say that the flashing action on the alert light did work to catch my attention more than just the bus with the normal static marquee.

    I felt the same way you did when the program first started; I thought it wouldn't make a difference at all. Though, I definitely do notice buses with the lights more than other buses. Especially if a bus is out of service, and speeding down a street, the flashing light makes it much more visible.



  5. So, no more Knight Rider lights? Bummer.

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  7. To add in my two cents: I don't think I've ever failed to see a bus and identify that it was *present* in proximity to myself as a pedestrian. Often, however, I have failed to notice that it was not slowing down as it approached a red light (that it subsequently ran) or that it was starting to move again (usually for the purpose of jumping the light before it turned green, aka when I still had a walk signal). Perhaps the more useful idea would be to add brake lights to the front of busses? :)

    And as a sidenote, while the yellow bar did nothing (in my opinion) to improve safety, it sure as hell is handy when you're trying to distinguish between a Mack truck, a WMATA bus, and a tour bus from a block or two away, in the dark or in poor weather, so it *does* help identify them from a distance! To me, that alone makes the project worthwhile...

  8. A Walmart on RI Ave?


  9. I agree with mr_bradshaw. I love the cylon buses. I had no idea that the lights are supposed to be a safety measure, I just like knowing from a distance that my wait for a bus is soon to end.


  10. why does WMATA hate Mt. Pleasant?

  11. @anonymous above me. I'm glad I'm not the only one that read that as Hate Mt Pleasant.