After years of controversy and extensive research, it appears that the school bus industry is finally nearing a reckoning of sorts on the issue of lap/shoulder seat belt systems. Last May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) capped a four-year research and testing project by determining that lap/shoulder belt systems likely will be required in all small school buses. NHTSA also declared that these systems could provide a small safety benefit in large buses but that more research was needed before a final decision could be made.
Since then, manufacturers and operators alike have scrambled to prepare for possible legislative changes, resulting in a heightened interest in lap/shoulder belt systems on school buses. In fact, the state of California has mandated that all small school buses purchased after July 1, 2004, and all large buses purchased after July 1, 2005, be equipped with these systems.
Furthermore, pilot programs testing lap/shoulder belt systems on in-service school buses are becoming more common, while many school bus and seat manufacturers have unveiled or begun developing new lap/shoulder seat belt systems.
Says Patrick Brown of Beam's Industries, a seat belt maker in Oklahoma City, "After the NHTSA decision, it looks like everyone prefers for all belts on school buses to be three-point belts, and it has created an urgency in the marketplace." The urgency is growing.
SBF will attempt to ease some of the anxiety over this issue by providing a run-down of some of the currently available lap/shoulder belt systems, their special features and other insight into what the future may hold for lap/shoulder belts on school buses.
Lap/shoulder belts come as three-point or four-point systems. The basic, most popular design is the integrated three-point system. Similar to the seat belt system used in most modern family vehicles, the three-point belt utilizes a belt across the shoulder for upper-torso restraint connected with a standard lap belt.
Three-point systems must meet all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for occupant restraints. These include FMVSS 210 for seat belt assembly anchorages and FMVSS 222 and 225 for school bus passenger seating requirements. Though further research and crash testing will help shed more light on the system’s effectiveness, studies to date have proven that the three-point lap/shoulder belt design combines the benefits of compartmentalization and restraint systems to protect occupants in various types of accidents, including rollover crashes.
As the industry appears to be still in the early stages of lap/shoulder belt evolution, only a few manufacturers have systems on the market right now. Even fewer have them available in anything more than limited quantities. John Fay, school bus marketing director for International Truck and Engine Corp., says that the company will initially offer lap/shoulder belts solely as an extended option. "We will leave the decision to the customer as to what product they want," he says.
Lap/shoulder belt systems are available in one-, two- or three-passenger seat configurations and will change the traditional capacities of school buses. School buses today commonly have two 39-inch seats per row. Each seat can fit three elementary or middle school students and two high school students. With new lap/shoulder seat belts, seats can be offered in a variety of lengths, including a 45-inch, three-passenger configuration; a 36-, 32- and 30-inch, two-passenger configuration and a 22- or 21-inch, one-passenger configuration. The different lengths can be combined in each row, depending on an operator’s needs.
Rows with a 45-inch and a 30-inch seat will probably be the most common, as this configuration may actually increase capacity in some cases. Says Bob Knapp, VP of C.E. White Co. in New Washington, Ohio, "With this setup, you are going from six kids in a row to five in a row in younger grades, but you are going from four in a row to five in a row in high school grades." Typically, however, the addition of lap/shoulder belts will reduce bus capacity.
Systems can be available as either a retrofit or as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) product. Retrofitting can be difficult and expensive, as the seat design would have to be integrated with the engineering plan of the entire bus, and in some cases the bus itself would have to be lengthened. Still, manufacturers are capable of providing hardware and installation instructions to allow buses to retrofit lap/shoulder belts while staying FMVSS-compliant.
Child safety seats and booster seats are not compatible with lap/shoulder belt systems unless the system has a special latch attachment.
As is the case with any new product, lap/shoulder belt systems come with an array of optional features to satisfy the differing needs of transportation operators. Depending on the manufacturer, any or all of the following may be available:
Retractable belts. The retractable belt adjusts automatically with the movement of the passenger and only restricts when the bus makes an abrupt start or stop. According to Brown of Beam's Industries, "A retractable style also reduces the amount of dangling or hanging slack in the belt that results after you change an adjustment point." This makes non-retractable belts a hindrance, he says.
Controlled collapse seat backs. Some lap/shoulder belt systems are offered on seats that have a controlled motion, allowing them to "give" for added protection in frontal collisions.
Four-point lap/shoulder belts. As mentioned earlier, these systems are advantageous for students who have special seating requirements.
Adjustable sizes. Most lap/shoulder belt systems should have clips or attachment points to allow for different sized passengers. Some also have positioning devices, which may aid in the transportation of special-needs students. In addition, in-seat attachment points may allow for the installation of car or booster seats.
Multiple seat contours, colors and materials. Seats come in standard school bus vinyl, fabric upholstery or even Kevlar or fireproof vinyl.
IMMI in Westfield, Ind., offers one of the first integrated lap/shoulder belt systems designed specifically for school bus applications. The SafeGuard School Bus Seat comes in five seat sizes — 45-inch, 36-inch, 32-inch, 30-inch and 22-inch — to fit children who weigh more than 40 pounds. IMMI is working with several bus manufacturers to have seats spec'd into school buses. They can also be retrofitted as replacements to school buses already on the road.
"We currently have several hundred seats on order for delivery in the first quarter of 2003," says Julie King, marketing specialist for IMMI. "We are receiving more inquiries from school districts on a daily basis."
Another of the first-ever models on the market is the Student Safety Seat from C.E. White Co. The Student Safety Seat is a line of school bus seats that come with either three-point belts, four-point belts or child restraint seats that convert to a three-point belt system. The three- and four-point models come in four seat sizes, with one-, two- and three-passenger configurations.
C.E. White is looking to expand the interest of this new seat belt system. Says Knapp, "Now we are approaching individual states and Canadian provinces to ask what they think, and we are taking the seat to school bus shows."
Most North American school bus manufacturers are at least looking into offering lap/shoulder belt options on their buses. IC Corp., International's Conway, Ark.-based subsidiary, designed its own model and began exhibiting it at trade shows in late 2002. Says Fay, "Full production will begin next year."
Thomas Built Buses in High Point, N.C., is not making its own belt systems right now. Instead, the company is evaluating systems developed by other companies. "Interest is growing, but demand — not yet. When the demand or mandate exists, we will act accordingly," says Allan Haggai, marketing manager for Thomas.
Officials at Blue Bird Corp. in Fort Valley, Ga., have confirmed that the company is taking steps to address the swelling interest in lap/shoulder belts but is still awaiting future regulatory changes.
Several early programs involving lap/shoulder belts on school buses are currently in effect, and more are on the way. Spokespeople for school bus and seat manufacturers interviewed for this article agreed that more companies would be involved in pilot projects for lap/shoulder belts or be ready to debut new systems by the end of 2003. Here are a couple of the projects already in effect:
In North Carolina, 13 Thomas Built school buses in 11 school districts have been outfitted with Student Safety Seats made by C.E. White. The districts, manufacturers and officials for the state department of education are working together closely to determine the effects of the systems. "The response we have received from school districts so far has been very favorable," says Knapp.
In Bloomington, Ind., the Harmony School acquired two Girardin Type A school buses with lap/shoulder belts from Fleetworks USA, a Chicago-based bus dealer. The belt systems represent the first delivery of IMMI's SafeGuard seats. Barb Bonchek, a school administrator at Harmony, had the following comment: "Parents are really excited that their children now have the opportunity to buckle up on the bus."