Development of the Transit Wheelchair
By Roseann Schwaderer
I began writing about pupil transportation in the early 1980s, and, by 1990, it was evident that the need for information on how to safely transport students with disabilities — especially those who were wheelchair users — was vital and should no longer be denied. Concerned transporters had been writing letters to wheelchair manufacturers seeking help, but their appeals were being ignored.
These transporters had questions and concerns about the integrity of the wheelchair as a seat in a vehicle; the best ways to secure wheelchairs on the school bus (bungee cords and home-made straps were common at that time); and whether students should be transferred to the bus seat or remain seated in the wheelchair during transport. Lifts were not so common on yellow buses then, so students were being hand-carried onto the bus, which was also a concern.
Shredding the evidence
In 1991, I was preparing the program for the inaugural National Conference on Transporting Students with Disabilities. Determining that one of the most important contributions the conference could make was to bring a representative of the wheelchair industry to speak, I appealed to Jim Thaler, a vice president at Invacare Corp. He reluctantly agreed to come. During the opening general session of the conference, Mr. Thaler blatantly and honestly told the assembled 300-plus pupil transporters that when he received letters or fax inquiries about wheelchairs on yellow buses, he “shredded” them. He admitted that he did not want to acknowledge that any issues existed. But after listening to concerns expressed during that session, he agreed to begin a dialogue with the pupil transportation industry.
The exchange of ideas that day in March 1992 led to formation of the Subcommittee on Wheelchairs and Transportation (SOWHAT), formed within the ANSI/RESNA Wheelchair Standards Committee. Pupil transportation providers volunteered initial funding for the work of SOWHAT, which was undertaken at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) under the leadership of Lawrence W. Schneider and at the University of Pittsburgh under the direction of Douglas A. Hobson. The goal was to establish a standard for design and performance requirements and associated test methods for wheelchairs used as seats in motor vehicles.
WC 19 standards adopted
In May 2000, the voluntary standard known as ANSI/RESNA WC 19 became effective.
The WC 19 transit wheelchair standards, which are voluntary, require that a wheelchair provide four easily accessible securement points on the wheelchair frame, and that the wheelchair be dynamically tested in a simulated 30 mph frontal- impact test while secured by a surrogate four-point, strap-type wheelchair tiedown system. Most wheelchair companies have been designing, redesigning and testing their wheelchair models to comply with ANSI/RESNA WC 19 requirements, although, arguably, marketing efforts have been less than full-throttle.
Meanwhile, a host of concerns about liability issues remains, and standard-development efforts are addressing additional safety issues.
There are many individuals inside and outside of UMTRI and the Pittsburgh facility who deserve credit for their role in the development of safer school bus transportation for students who are wheelchair users. But special appreciation should go out to the following representatives of the pupil transportation sector for being there all along the way:
Lyle Stephens, owner of Special Transportation Inc., whose 1989 petition to the Department of Transportation and subsequent 1993 lawsuit, Debra Simms and Lyle Stephens v. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration brought the issue of crashworthiness standards to the forefront. In 1991, Stephens entered into a transaction with Kellie Dean, leading to the creation of Dean Transportation. Significant funding for the SOWHAT work was provided by Dean Transportation.
Michael W. Wagner, then of Alpha School Bus Co., spearheaded fundraising for SOWHAT and participated actively in the committee’s work.
Susan Englert Shutrump, an occupational therapist in Trumbull County, Ohio, who pressed early on to ensure that seat inserts and other modifications to the wheelchair be considered in the transit wheelchair standard development.
Physical therapist Bette S. Cotzin and occupational therapist Judith A. Marks of Washtenaw (Mich.) Intermediate School District for their early work on placing colored markers on wheelchair securement points and their publication, School Bus Transportation of Students in Wheelchairs: A Manual of Procedures and Practices Used by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District for Providing Effective Wheelchair Securement.
Peter J. Grandolfo, who served on advisory committees to SOWHAT and the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Wheelchair Transportation Safety until his death on Jan. 22, 2006.
Frank Curran of Concord (N.H.) Public Schools, who was one of the writers of the letters that were shredded and who, like many others, did not let up in working for safer transportation for students who are wheelchair users.
Roseann Schwaderer, president of Edupro Group, sponsors and chairs the National Conference on Transporting Students With Disabilities and Preschoolers. With Peggy Burns, she publishes Legal Routes, a bimonthly report on pupil transportation law and compliance. She can be reached at www.eduprogroup.com and [email protected].
Legislation Leads to Standards for Safer Buses
By Pete Baxter
School bus passenger safety is directly connected to two things: one, the quality and training of the school bus driver; and, two, the construction and equipment standards of the school bus. It is the latter that is the focus of this commentary.
As school transportation vehicles evolved from school hacks — wagons pulled by true horsepower to a school bus designed specifically for children, it became evident that construction and equipment standards were necessary for consistent building of the vehicle.
School bus equipment and construction standards initially were developed by the school transportation community through the National Congress on School Transportation, beginning in 1939 and held every five years thereafter. Then, in the latter part of the 20th century, legislative and regulatory actions by state and federal governments strove to ensure school buses provided the safest means of school transportation for children.
Congress gets involved
The safety of children has long been a concern of all levels of government, and the safety of children riding a school bus is no exception. At the national level, the first major emphasis on school bus safety resulted when Congress passed the School Bus Safety Amendments of 1974, which amended the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. The congressional hearings, which led to the School Bus Safety Amendments, were very clear — Congress believed that school bus transportation should be held to the highest level of safety. As a result, to this day school buses are built to a higher level of safety performance than all other motor vehicles.
The 1974 amendments mandated the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses that covered the following aspects of performance:
Interior protection for occupants
Crashworthiness of body and frame (including protection against rollover hazards)
Vehicle operating systems
Windows and windshields
Congress did not tell NHTSA what FMVSS to issue; it merely mandated that safety administration issue standards address safety concerns in a number of areas. After completing extensive research and several notices of proposed rulemaking and public comment, NHTSA issued a comprehensive set of FMVSS that went into effect on April 1, 1977. These included three new FMVSS that were unique to school buses and amendments to four existing FMVSS to create unique requirements for school buses.
FMVSS and school buses
The three FMVSS unique to school buses were:
No. 220, School Bus Rollover Protection. This standard specifies minimum strength requirements for school bus roofs to reduce the likelihood of roof collapse in a rollover.
No. 221, School Bus Body Joint Strength. This standard specifies minimum strength requirements for body panel joints to improve the structural integrity of the passenger compartment.
No. 222, School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection. This standard specifies seating, restraining barrier and impact-zone requirements for school buses.
The four FMVSS that have unique requirements for school buses were:
No. 105, Hydraulic Brake System. This standard requires school buses with hydraulic brakes to stop in shorter distances.
No. 111, Rearview Mirrors. This standard added requirements for school bus cross-view mirrors.
No. 217, Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release. This standard specifies means of readily accessible emergency egress.
No. 301, Fuel System Integrity. This standard specifies requirements for the integrity and security of the entire fuel system.
It is important to note that National School Bus Yellow (NSBY) is not an FMVSS, although many people believe it is. School bus yellow was adopted by the first National Conference on School Transportation (as it was then called) in 1939 and was already an industry-wide standard in use by the states for decades. The lack of an FMVSS does not mean the federal government has not expressed an opinion on school bus color. In NHTSA’s Highway Safety Program Guideline 17, it recommends school buses be painted NSBY and goes so far as to suggest that any school bus that is converted for purposes other than transporting children to and from school and school-related activities be painted a different color.
Because our industry moves 24 million students twice each school day during peak traffic times in every community regardless of its population, school bus crashes are an inevitable risk. Most every crash is reported by the media in some form or manner. However, when we look past the visual of the wrecked school bus, do we realize that nearly all of the students are either uninjured or suffer only minor injuries? This is the “value added” of the April 1, 1977, standards.
Pete Baxter is the school traffic division director for the Indiana Department of Education and the general conference chair for the 2010 National Congress on School Transportation. He is also a former president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National Association for Pupil Transportation.