Will buckling up help us to buckle down on bus accident injuries and fatalities? In spite of all of the activity surrounding seat belts lately, the jury is still out on that decision for several reasons. In spite of the fact that seat belts have been mandated on new coaches starting late in 2016, the feds are already suggesting that seat belts may not be that important for safety as they once were.
The latest development is that following a study, the feds have declined to mandate seat belts on existing coaches. They cite several reasons for this including the fact that the increasing popularity of Electronic Stability Control makes seat belts less effective as a safety measure.
Expectedly, we have had several questions recently pertaining to seats, seatbelts and bus safety. Here are answers to many of those questions and comments on others.
The bus industry has always had an enviable safety record. Bus travel is generally acknowledged as the safest form of land transportation. Airplanes are technically safer if figured on a mile travelled basis but not on a per-trip basis. Admittedly, there are several reasons why buses are so safe.
One basic reason for bus safety is that most bus operators are very concerned for their passengers and many are small family businesses. Those companies that are not concerned for their passengers and safety do not remain in business long. A second reason is the substantial weight of buses. A big bus outweighs most other vehicles on the road and hence tends to come out ahead in conflicts. What may be the biggest reason for passenger safety are those big, padded seats. In anything less than a major accident, passengers tend to be protected to a large extent by those padded seats that cushion passengers and keep them from being thrown around.
The next logical step would be for bus and seat manufacturers to move into full seat compartmentalization. This was mentioned in an article in the March, 2009 National Bus Trader but so far this has not happened, possibly because of the already excellent safety record of the industry. Somewhere around 1995, Friedman Seating developed an affordable compartmentalized motorcoach seat, but it never caught on. More recently, another company developed a modern compartmentalized seat to improve safety but negative comments from passengers held back any major move in that direction.
The advantage of compartmentalization or anything even close is that it is essentially a totally passive safety feature. The passengers need do nothing for it to work. However, a major limiting feature with seat belts is that they must be buckled by the passengers.
Mandating Seat Belts
While many people may not be happy with the mandate to install seat belts on new coaches, I would stick my neck out a bit and compliment the feds for doing their homework prior to taking action. In particular, I can point to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that looked at motorcoach fatalities from 1996 to 2005. The results of this study most likely prompted the move to seat belts on new coaches.
The numbers showed a couple of interesting things. One is that bus travel is relatively safe. In spite of the number of buses on the road, the average was only 14 fatalities annually. The study pointed out that three accidents (1999-Louisiana, 2004-Arkansas, and 2005-Wilmer, Texas) were responsible for the larger numbers in those years.
Those big, padded bus seats did a great job of limiting injuries to passengers who remained within the bus. However, the statistics showed that approximately 29 percent of the crashes resulted in a rollover. Most of the passenger fatalities (56 percent) were caused by people being ejected out of the coach. This is why thoughts turned to “passenger restraints” and hence to seat belts to keep them in their seats.
However, now that we are talking about passengers being ejected I would like to digress slightly to talk about push-out windows and driver fatigue in regard to bus accidents.
Push-Out Windows and Driver Fatigue
Many people, myself included, will point to those push-out windows as being a major reason why we have passenger ejections during a rollover accident. As a bus turns on its side or rolls over, those push-out windows can pop open. This leaves a huge space for passengers to be ejected from the bus. Push-out windows are mandated on coaches in America but generally not elsewhere. The original reason for the push-out windows dates back to a bad head-on accident between a Yellow Coach 743 and a GM PD3751 early in the morning of August 4, 1952 south of Waco, Texas.
Entrance doors were damaged by the impact and the buses were engulfed in flames because of gasoline on the 743. The small passenger windows at this time were not easy to use for escape. Twenty-six passengers and both drivers perished in the accident. One result was the mandate for push-out windows so passengers could escape from a bus on fire.
The subsequent movement to diesel engines and diesel fuel made buses less likely to catch fire. To the best of my knowledge, more people have been killed by being thrown out of push-out windows than have been saved by using them to escape a bus fire. I have heard comments that it would take an athlete to push open the windows and then drop to the ground. While this may not be totally true, it does explain why push-out windows are not being used to escape fires.
Among other things, the push-out window design does not appear to be intuitive. In the recent crash in Orland, California, the students escaped by breaking the windows and not by pushing them out. Hence, there are some real questions as to whether push-out windows have improved passenger safety or have caused additional deaths because of passengers being ejected from the bus.
In comparison, in Europe they do not have push-out windows but do mount hammers on the walls that can be used to break the glass for escape. This is obviously a great deal more intuitive and obvious to passengers.
Another question that comes up in regard to bus accidents and fatalities is driver fatigue and shift inversion. Seemingly glossed over in that same NHTSA study covering bus accidents from 1996 to 2005 is the fact that 65 percent of the accidents (essentially two out of three) were single vehicle accidents. While it may not always be the case, any single vehicle accident, particularly where the bus leaves the roadway, suggests the possibility of driver fatigue or shift inversion.
This particular problem tends to be more likely with charters running overnight or unusual hours. With regular scheduled service, drivers tend to change their sleeping and waking hours to match the schedule of their runs. With conventional tours, the driver tends to park for the night so the passengers can get some sleep.
Overnight charters and those running at unusual hours are most vulnerable to driver fatigue and shift inversion. It is never a good idea to ask a driver to drive during hours when he or she would normally be sleeping. Yet, in spite of this being an obvious potential factor in major bus accidents, we see almost nothing in the way of regulations to prevent this. Although I do know of several bus operators who watch out for driver fatigue and shift inversion in their driver scheduling.
On November 25, 2013 the NHTSA mandated three-point seat belts on coaches effective November, 2016. Most bus operators did not wait for the deadline and began ordering their new buses with seat belts as they came from the factory. Hence, by the time the date rolls around, there will already be a substantial number of coaches with seat belts in operation.
Before talking about retrofitting seat belts on older coaches, I think it would be a good idea to cover what you need to do to include seat belts on new coaches. To begin with, you simply cannot take seat belts and affix them to a standard bus seat. A traditional bus seat was not designed to handle that kind of stress. Hence, you need to start with seats designed with integrated seat belts.
Next, you will most likely have to substantially increase the ability of the seat tracks to handle stress. Seats with seat belts will require fittings strong enough to include both the weight of the seat as well as the weight of anyone belted into
that seat. Depending on circumstances, we can be talking about several times the required retention force. The negative factor here is that if the seats are not restrained properly they could all slide to the front of the bus in a frontal accident that would create an accordion sandwich of people and seats.
Finally, you may have to beef up the bus structure to deal with this extra stress. While this can be engineered into new coaches, it may be a problem for older coaches that were probably built without seat belts in mind.
Retrofitting Seat Belts
While the original mandate for three-point seat belts applies only to new coaches, there was a question as to whether seat belts should be retrofitted on older coaches. This was looked at by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their “Report to Congress: Retrofit Assessment for Existing Motorcoaches” was issued in August of 2015 and essentially said “no” to retrofitting seat belts in existing coaches. They offered several reasons for their decision.
Cost was the primary reason for not going with retrofitting. Replacing the seats while beefing up the seat tracks and structure in an older coach would be costly. In many cases it could amount to a substantial percentage of the value of the coach. The report stated: “Retrofitting would produce a significant burden on the small entities which would be responsible for accommodating it.” This makes reference to the fact that many bus operations are small and family businesses and may not have high profit margins.
The report said that seat belts are only of value if passengers use them. Hence, another reason for not retrofitting seat belts is: “Belt use rates for motorcoaches are much lower than for other passenger vehicles, typically under 10 percent . . . .” They went on to say: “Given low belt use rates, retrofitting was unlikely to produce substantial safety benefits.”
Much of the problem with seat belt usage on buses is that while coaches are now expected to have seat belts, there is no mandate for passengers to use them. Moreover, there is no practical way for a bus driver to monitor or demand that people use their belts.
An interesting development was the mention of Electronic Stability Control (ESC). This report states that ESC was virtually unknown when data from 2000 to 2009 was looked at. It mentions that “ESC is highly effective (40-56 percent) in preventing rollovers and run off the road crashes. It suggests that seat belts are less of a safety factor in coaches equipped with ESC.
It was also noted that “retrofitting motorcoaches would be a far more complex process than OEM installation. Further, responsibility for retrofitting would typically fall upon entities such as schools, churches and bus fleet managers who have no experience with designing, manufacturing, engineering or testing motor vehicle modifications.” Hence, NHTSA would have to put in a significant amount of research to develop guidelines for retrofitting for all the various makes, models and years of coaches on the road. It was estimated that could not be done prior to 2021, which makes retrofitting totally impractical.
This lack of federal guidelines for retrofitting is a major deterrent to retrofitting. For example two-point seat belts (lap belts) are not recommended for children and the NHTSA has said that two-point seat belts are actually dangerous (see the February, 2013 National Bus Trader). Without guidelines for retrofitting there are too many unanswered questions on seats, seat tracks and construction standards.
What this means is that there are no federal guidelines for retrofitting seat belts on older coaches. If you want to do this, you are pretty much on your own. I know that some of the companies doing seat belt retrofitting have used European standards. There are some standards that apply to school buses, but they tend to be impractical for coaches.
Seat Belt Litigation
On occasion we have been asked to help out with litigation where someone gets sued for not having seat belts on an older coach that got involved in an accident. Here is some basic information that could help you, but feel free to contact us.
• Seats with seat belts were simply not available as an option much before 2008. The reason
being that passengers did not ask for them and the feds did not mandate them.
• What the passengers started to ask for was Wi-Fi and 110-volt outlets so this did become
• Installing seats with seat belts in an older coach without other modifications would not be
recommended since the seat tracks and structure were not built strong enough to handle the
additional stress of seats with seat belts.
• Installing seats with seat belts and additional structure would increase the weight of the
coach and hence increase fuel usage and pollution. The increased weight might also decrease
safety, particularly on coaches already close to their maximum weight.
• There are alternatives to seat belt retrofitting that would provide more passenger safety for
• No federal guidelines or specifications exist for retrofitting seat belts on older coaches.
Hence, there is no assurance that you are doing the right thing.