Safety comes first for all areas of transportation, but it’s even more important for school buses to make the ride for all children safe and secure. When it comes to students who use wheelchairs or have other special needs, there are special considerations and mobility devices on the market to make sure the bus is comfortable, customized, and accessible, while following best-practice recommendations and adhering to regulations.
The Current Landscape
While Type A and Type C buses have traditionally been used most, today all types of buses are required to accommodate special needs. Because most wheelchairs were not designed to be used as a seating system in a moving vehicle increases the need for transportation managers and bus drivers to brush up on current standards to meet the needs of wheelchair passengers.
Two major wheelchair safety standards exist today: WC18 and WC19, released in 2015 and 2000, respectively, from the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). The former calls for effective frontal-crash protection for occupants in wheelchairs for all types and sizes of vehicles, including a restraint system with both a pelvic belt and at least one shoulder belt, and for wheelchair tie-downs or other devices to pass two strength tests. The latter requires design and testing for wheelchairs in a vehicle with a seat, and includes tie-down securement points and a lap belt that has been integrated into the design and tested for crashworthiness.
“The most significant implication of the revised [WC18] standard is that wheelchair tie-downs must be stronger,” Joe Boyko, Northeastern sales manager for Q’Straint, explains. “As with SAE J2249 previously, adopting the RESNA WC18 in specifications and bus standards reduces the liability of transportation providers and ensures that they receive securement equipment that meets the latest industry safety standard. The time to upgrade to securement equipment that meets this standard is now!”
Securement Strategies & Maintenance
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to seating and securement solutions.
“The first thing that I tell anyone when we are discussing special needs securement is that we need to have a clear, concise evacuation plan for each and every student on that specific route,” BESI National Sales Manager Aaron Harris says. “In other words, do not put a student on a bus until you have a plan to get them off in an emergency.”
IMMI/Safeguard offered up some additional tips: When selecting a pre-K child restraint for use on buses, the guide must be how well it can provide protection for the child. This begins with identifying the proper type of restraint and how it fits in the bus seat area. A school bus-specific restraint is usually best, the company advises. Next, make sure the restraint can be easily installed properly. Finally, and most critically, it must be easy to secure. If all the belts are not adjusted properly, the restraint may not provide the intended protection.
IMMI also notes that school bus seats and add-on restraints should be inspected regularly for wear and damage. An inspection can be incorporated into a driver’s regular pre-trip checklist or scheduled in other regular intervals.
Sure-Lok, a company that merged with Q’Straint in 2010, suggests this checklist when using restraints for wheelchairs:
- The wheelchair should be forward-facing and centered on the anchorage.
- Brakes are set and the power is switched off.
- The wheelchair is anchored at four points using manufacturer instructions.
- The straps are attached properly.
- The straps should be as close to a 45-degree angle as possible, but no more than 60 degrees.
- The straps should not be attached to the wheels or any other detachable part of the wheelchair.
- The straps should not bend around any object or be close to sharp objects or edges.
AMF-Bruns of America also advises timely reporting of missing components, regular cleaning, offering wheelchair securement and empathic training for all drivers, and having a good evacuation plan, as well as incident plan to replace systems after any accidents or collisions.
And above all, make sure the products are well tested, comply with local, state, and national regulations, and are replaced when necessary and after any accident.
Available School Bus Securement Products
AMF-Bruns of America
Last year, AMF-Bruns of America unveiled its Protektor 2.0 SilverSeries, which won a Red Dot Design Award. The four-point securement system was redesigned to fit into smaller spaces, and is lighter and easier to use. The system’s retractors are anchored to the floor with a L-track fitting or a Smart fitting and can be tethered to the wheelchair with a J-hook, carabiner, or loop attachment. The system can also be optimized by using an occupant securement system and is compatible with all wheelchairs and vehicles.
AMF also offers headrests and backrests, ramp systems, floor anchorages for school buses, accessories like webbing loops and storage pouches, and a Sani-Station sanitizer unit that can be installed on school buses. Aside from these physical products, the company also offers online training at no charge, maintenance checklists, and training materials.
BESI, Inc. produces a full line of FMVSS 213 compliant securement solutions including the Pro Tech series of add-on seats, safety vests that are crash tested up to 275 lbs., and the patented Safe Journey seat mount that helps contain the “escape artists” on the bus, the manufacturer shares.
Speaking to the real-world use of the company’s product, Josy Campbell, transportation operations manager for the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Harrison School District 2, shares this story: “Approximately two years ago, our department was introduced to the Safe Journey when we had a student who, no matter what safety restraint system we put him in, found a way out of it. This was also a student that when he would get out of his safety restraint system, he was not only a danger to himself but to other students on the bus. When we purchased the Safe Journey, it was a huge relief to know that our student was going to be safe due to the new design of the seat mount system. Putting the D-ring and clips to the back of the seat, kept the student from accessing and undoing them and therefore getting out. The new design of the clips at the seat bite also keeps students from accessing those and posing another safety concern for the student not sitting correctly potentially causing injury.”
BESI also manufactures a line of evacuation products including belt cutters, fire blankets, and two different emergency evacuation devices: the Evac Aide and the Evacuation Transporter.
BESI’s new Zip Clip is available on all of its safety vest products from the factory. And, the company is offering school districts the ability to upgrade their existing vests by sending them back for installation.
The company also offers training in person, via video conference, at dealer facilities, and at state and national trade shows to keep the industry informed.
SafeGuard’s seating solutions can be tailored to various requirements. Specifically, the company says the SafeGuard ICS and STAR product lines are engineered to transport younger children that wouldn’t be as secured in a standard K-12 school bus seat. The STAR Special Needs line is designed specifically for use on school buses and offers multiple supports for a child’s unique physical needs.
The SafeGuard SuperSTAR features car-seat technology and consists of a central adjust, allowing for one-pull tightening of the restraint system.
Q’Straint’s QRT-360 series retractors, as well as the Sure-Lok Titan 800 series, are unique heavy-duty, fully automatic retractable tie-downs. Stronger than previous retractors, each uses energy management designs and material technologies to deliver the system’s full strength for maximum load capacity, exceeding the requirements of the WC18 standard, the company says.
Both series meets load requirements of up to 60% higher during a collision as specified by RESNA and WC18 and are compatible with newer WC19 wheelchairs. Self-tensioning retractors automatically take up slack to ensure the wheelchair passenger is always secured, while belts continue to tighten during low-g vehicle movements. It features a low profile with no mounting bracket to fit under most footrests, as well as J-Hook attachments to secure to nearly any device and reduce the twisting of belts. Both systems come with a five-year warranty.
Q’Straint also offers online free training, including monthly webinars that cover securement basics and a review of basic principles to properly secure passengers with special needs and their wheelchairs, a course called Securement 101: Basic Wheelchair Securement that teaches best practices to new hires or experienced drivers needing a refresher, and the advanced Securement 103 training on securing difficult mobility devices on buses.
“It is important to remember that safety is the number one priority, and every effort must be made to ensure consistency and completeness,” Boyko says, reminding of the importance of regular inspections and maintenance to prevent liabilities and place passengers at risk of injury.
He also notes that challenging environments that combine heavy use, exposure to extreme temperatures, and road salt can accelerate wear. “We cannot emphasize enough the importance of conducting this evaluation with the greatest of accuracy,” he adds.
“School buses are called on to do so many things other than trips to and from school on a daily basis, that the flexibility to transport a variety of different passengers is a critical aspect of the product and the equipment with which it is outfitted,” IMMI/Safeguard reminds. “Specialization and adaptability are more important now than ever before.”