Video cameras have become a fact of life in the United States, monitoring our everyday activities, such as using ATMs, shopping in stores and even walking down the street.
So it is no surprise that they are being used by a growing number of motorcoach operators, line operators and transit agencies on their buses to monitor driver and passenger behavior and to capture video footage of accidents.
And while some bus drivers — at least initially — criticized them as another example of Big Brother watching them, onboard video cameras are now widely accepted as safety and coaching tools that can highlight both good and bad driving practices, and as risk management tools that can significantly reduce insurance claims.
Video cameras help ‘find the truth’
“Cameras help you find the truth,” said Matt Dance, Director of Safety and Risk Management at Champion Coach in Greenville, South Carolina, which has six cameras on each of its 40 buses.
“If there are issues between our drivers and other vehicles, we can see all of the angles and find the truth in the situation. It has definitely cut down on our insurance claims, and the fewer claims we have, the better.”
Dance, who is a member of the UMA Board of Directors and chairs its Risk Management Committee, said a good example of what cameras can do occurred a couple of years ago, when three Champion buses were traveling together after a football game. A car operated by a drunken driver sideswiped the middle bus and crashed into the median.
“With video cameras, we could see the car from all three buses,” proving the crash wasn’t their fault and that it was unpreventable, he said. “In most cases, we can see the video in seconds and send it to law enforcement officials in minutes, while they are on the scene. He said/she said sideswipe accidents are hard to settle. We’ve had cases where people accuse us of hitting their cars and, when we tell them we have video, we never hear from them again.”
Cost of video cameras
There are no estimates as to how many operators have installed cameras on their buses, but they seem to be more prevalent at larger companies because of their cost. Video camera systems generally cost from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000 per bus, depending on the number of cameras and their capabilities. Buses normally have six to eight cameras, including two on the exterior, although one company has installed up to 15 cameras on its double-decker buses.
Camera usage by motorcoach operators was picking up before the COVID-19 pandemic largely shut down the industry. Since business has begun returning, purchases of cameras haven’t increased much because operators are reluctant to take on the additional cost after more than a year of losing money. But sales are running ahead of 2019 numbers, said Mike McDonal, Director of Regulatory Compliance and Industry Relations at camera supplier Saucon Technologies.
McDonal, a former motorcoach operator, said video systems can quickly pay for themselves by allowing operators to avoid costly insurance claims and court cases.
“Everybody is fighting the increasing cost of insurance,” he said. “Operators are investing in video to protect themselves. Avoiding one large claim can cover the cost of a video system.”
Reasons for installing cameras
He said there are several reasons operators choose to install cameras on their buses. Cameras allow operators to monitor drivers and use videos showing good and bad behavior as coaching tools; to keep track of passenger behavior, especially on line run buses, where people purchase individual tickets; and to manage risk and claims by being able to track events leading up to an incident.
“They also provide peace of mind,” McDonal said. “You can literally watch a bus go down the road. You can see if a driver swerves, goes through a stop sign, or is distracted by a client or something else.”
But he stressed that operators don’t monitor drivers to catch them doing something wrong, although that does occasionally happen. “They can be used, not as a gotcha, but to recognize good driving and to show other drivers examples of good driving practices,” McDonal said.
‘Video doesn’t lie’
They also can help determine who was at fault in an accident or other incident. “Video doesn’t lie. It’s right there for you to see,” he said. Even so, some drivers are skeptical of cameras and feel they aren’t trusted by management.
“When I was an operator, some of my drivers were apprehensive and claimed cameras were Big Brother,” McDonal said. “But if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. I’m not here to be Big Brother. I’m here to have your back.”
Dance said the telematics system on buses can alert operators if there is an incident — such as hard braking, excessive speed or swerving — immediately after it happens. Operators also can check cameras randomly to see if a driver is talking on a cellphone or violating company policy.
“We occasionally catch someone. We once saw a driver covering up the cameras. But I tell the drivers the cameras are for loss prevention, not to watch you … unless you give us a reason to watch you.”
Reducing accident risk, costs
While the ability to assist drivers and correct problematic driver behavior is a major reason operators use cameras, reducing a company’s overall accident risk and the associated costs is an additional benefit, said Steven O’Shea, Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Customer Service at Lancer Insurance, a major motorcoach insurer.
“If you really want to have an impact on claims costs, utilizing camera systems in the proper way is a wise decision,” O’Shea said. “Video footage provides unbiased evidence and will help establish the facts as to how the accident occurred. This data also helps protect operators and allows insurers to defend against fraudulent claims. It has been documented that insurance claims with video settle more quickly than claims without video.”
He said that, since 2012, the impact of cameras on reducing insurance claims has been “in the millions of dollars.”
Even so, most insurance companies don’t require their motorcoach clients to install cameras, although they strongly recommend it. “We look at cameras as an extremely important element in evaluating any company’s risk profile,” O’Shea said. “The more cameras there are, the better it is for the industry.”
Some insurance companies offer incentives for operators to install cameras, such as subsidizing the cost. And since the systems have proven to strengthen fleet safety programs and reduce the risk of collisions, operators may see a positive effect on insurance premiums over time. If actuarial studies determine a change in risk due to cameras, “there possibly could be an impact on premiums going forward,” O’Shea said.
All cameras are not equal
Bob Crescenzo, Lancer’s Vice President of Safety and Loss Control, said not all cameras are equal. An operator that installs a low-cost camera to simply monitor front-facing crashes will not be able to work with the driver in a positive way. Systems with multiple cameras facing in a variety of directions provide the best coverage and ability to integrate the information into driver training.
Crescenzo added that maintenance of camera systems is critical. Cameras can be damaged by heat or cold, and operators have to make sure the devices’ memory cards aren’t full, or they won’t be able to capture the video footage. “Having a camera that’s not working properly, or that has software that hasn’t been updated, is of no value,” he said.
Dance, of Champion Coach, said the company is totally sold on cameras. “Whenever one of our camera systems malfunction or if they haven’t been installed yet on one of our buses, I get very uncomfortable and nervous that something could happen. I’m not sure how we operated without cameras. They are definitely worth the investment. We would never have a bus without cameras again.”