An operator’s best friend

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CCTV and telematics have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. One company at the forefront of the industry is Centrad. John Lewis spoke to its founder and owner to find out more

Geoff Cross is uniquely placed when it comes to advising bus operators on how best to ensure the safety and security of passengers and drivers. That’s because the founder and owner of onboard CCTV and telematics specialist Centrad ran his own bus company in Birmingham for 15 years.

“I started Central Buses back in 2003 with just one bus,” he recalled. “By the time I sold it to Rotala in February 2018 however I had 32, and employed 60 staff across three depots. Having operated a fleet myself I know what the challenges are, and I believe I know the solutions.”

His interest in CCTV was triggered after Central Buses was on the receiving end of a steady stream of what he refers to as phantom insurance claims; dishonest attempts by unscrupulous passengers to defraud his firm by alleging they had been injured as a consequence of the conduct of one of his drivers at the wheel.

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“We had situations where we were getting as many as 25 claims from passengers who reckoned they had been injured because the driver had braked too harshly,” he said. “However, at the time of the incident there were no more than three passengers on board.”

He set up Centrad while he was still running Central Buses. The business started out supplying LED destination displays, but the need for what Geoff describes as ‘an accurate eye-witness’ led to it expanding into onboard CCTV. “We looked at the onboard CCTV systems that were already on the market, but felt that they were expensive and the quality wasn’t good enough,” he said.

So in 2008 Centrad developed and came up with its own range of camera products. “We designed it ourselves and had it manufactured in the Far East to our specifications,” said Geoff. “Technology is moving at a fast pace and systems have developed significantly since.”

He began by equipping his own fleet. “We were at the stage where if we hadn’t fitted cameras, Central Buses would have become unviable,” he observed. Their presence made it easier to rebut dishonest claims, and undoubtedly deterred fraudsters from chancing their arm. “Other benefits include driver behaviour monitoring and protecting our staff and customers,” he said. “Cameras are a driver’s best friend or worst enemy.”

Geoff Cross, founder of Centrad

Having kitted out his own vehicles, Geoff began supplying CCTV to other operators; and Centrad began to expand significantly. “So when I was approached at the end of 2017 with an acquisition proposal for Central Buses, I made the decision to sell and invest my time into Centrad,” he said.
Today Centrad is based in Tamworth, Staffordshire, having moved out of Birmingham. The business is going from strength to strength and has recently acquired a 3,500 sq ft purpose-built office space with a demonstration suite.

“We’ve got 700 fleet customers, including a number of very well known operators, and we installed 10,000 cameras last year,” he said. Around 70% of the cameras Centrad fits are mounted on buses, with commercial vehicles accounting for a high percentage of the remainder.

These days the company installs HD – high-definition – resolution cameras. “That’s our standard offering and it provides images that are three times the quality of the images from the cameras we used to fit,” Geoff said.

“Our most popular DVR (digital video recorder) is the CEN102 AHD, our eight plus four camera option,” he added. “It is able to support up to eight AHD cameras and four 1080P IP cameras that can also offer audio and infrared night vision.”

When Geoff ran Central Buses, he installed four-camera solutions. These days eight cameras are being fitted to vehicles and Centrad can provide a maximum of 24 so that there is full coverage.

Images are recorded on an onboard DVR with an internal lockable SD card or hard drive that can be physically removed so that they can be viewed on a desktop PC. They can also be downloaded using a WLAN – wireless local area network – when the bus returns to its depot.

On the options list is built-in 4G for live remote viewing and management on a smartphone, tablet or PC. “It will be even easier when 5G is widely available,” Geoff remarked. A panic button can be installed which the driver can press to alert the depot if an incident is occurring so that managers can see what is going on; and take appropriate action. Recordings could eventually be held in the cloud and accessible through a password-protected portal. “Cloud technology is the way forward,” Geoff stated.

All the firm’s camera systems are covered by a two-year warranty. GPS is included as standard and provides vehicle location and speed data. The information it delivers synchronises with the video footage and audio recordings. Audio recording equipment is proving popular and can be combined with the aforementioned mini-dome camera. It enables recordings to be produced which can support allegations that a passenger used abusive language to the driver and the other way round.

Inside the firm’s Tamworth base

Geoff is not attempting to suggest that all claims made by passengers are fraudulent. That is certainly not the case, he said. “If your vehicle is the one at fault however, and there is camera evidence, then you can manage the claim more quickly and efficiently to settle it on the best possible terms,” he said.

Without it, disputes over who did what and when can drag on for days, if not weeks. If the claim centres around damage done to a parked car, then the claimant’s car hire costs will rise and rise; and the bus company and its insurers will end up footing the bill.

Cameras can be mounted externally in order to monitor blind spots and the road ahead as well as positioned internally, Geoff points out.

Worthy of note is Centrad’s CEN-303 weather-resistant reversing camera, which has a viewing angle of approximately 180 degrees. It comes with 12 infra-red LEDs which illuminate the area behind the vehicle up to 5m away.

The image can be viewed on a 7” CEN-205 in-cab monitor which the firm can also provide. Cameras are installed to provide full surveillance on every side and corner of the vehicle. Cameras can also be used to monitor drivers to ensure they are concentrating, not smoking, not using a hand-held phone while driving, and not exhibiting signs of fatigue. Tired drivers are a danger to themselves, their passengers and to other road users.

This type of camera can be integrated with an onboard driver monitoring system that can detect harsh acceleration and other instances of poor driving, including a failure to use indicators, and provide instant real-time alerts to the traffic office.

Centrad still offers LED destination displays and has developed next stop announcement and remote tachograph download. Centrad can also install onboard WiFi; something bus passengers increasingly expect as a matter of course, The onboard device can be connected to one of the company’s DVR recorders using an ethernet cable which gives operators the ability to view and download camera footage and obtain live and historic GPS data. Customers can select from a range of data packages.

Geoff hasn’t entirely given up operating buses. “I’ve got a 1997 Dennis Dart which we use to demonstrate the various products Centrad offers,” he said. He also owns a small private hire business called Midland Bus Hire which can provide a 1966 AEC Routemaster for weddings and other special events. Look out for it at venues around the West Midlands this year.