James Wang explains buses and seat belts

Sir George Cayley, who was born on Dec. 27, 1773, and lived until 1857, when he died at the ripe old age of 83, was an English inventor. 

Sir George was fascinated by the concept of flying and created several ideas and designs of flying machines. Although none of Sir George’s flying machines ever took to the skies, the Wright brothers credited him for much of the research and data they said were crucial in their design of the first airplane that did take flight. 

Though Sir George never produced a powered aircraft that could fly, he gained a lot of knowledge of the different forces that a plane and its pilot had to endure. 

In 1804, Sir George successfully flew an unpowered glider that he had been working on. Little did he know that one of the safety features he added to that glider would be something that the entire world would be using today. 

The seat belt. 

Not welcomed 

Between 1940 and the late 1950s, cars and automobiles were the latest fashion in the U.S. The car you sat in defined who you were, almost just as much as the clothes you wore.

But the one thing debated by Americans was the use of seat belts. 

In 1964, a letter published by a critic of safety belts said, “as long as the life risked is his own, I believe the individual should decide whether or not to use safety belts is wise.”

There was so much resistance to seat belts that car companies that included seat belts in newer model vehicles faced fierce backlash.

In 1956, only 2% of Ford buyers purchased the seatbelt option.

In 1961, the state of Wisconsin made history as it became the first state to require seat belts in all cars.

In 1968, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act made seat belts mandatory in all cars across the country. 

In 1970, Australia was the first country in the world to enforce seat belt laws. Not only did cars have to have seat belts installed in them, but the driver and passengers would have to wear them.

Canada was next to follow suit, enforcing seat belt laws in 1976, followed by the United Kingdom in 1983.

Seat belts were now a thing for cars all over the world … but not buses. Why not buses???

Let’s find out, shall we? ( Buckle up!)

Buses and seat belts

Even today, most buses in the U.S. do not have seat belts on board. And depending on the state, the laws that govern whether buses need seat belts or whether a passenger needs to wear one are different.

It also depends on the type of bus.  

For example, city transit buses do not have seat belts at all. Traffic safety officials justify this by saying public buses used in urban areas tend to travel more slowly, and often in dedicated bus lanes. Also, they typically travel short distances with frequent stops.

On top of that, the design of many urban transit buses makes it difficult to retrofit them with seat belts. 

And even if seat belts were installed on public transit buses, many passengers stand during transit, and it would be kind of hard to put a seat belt on while standing.

But school buses and motorcoaches are different. 

Only eight states require school buses to be equipped with seat belts: California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

That doesn’t mean that school buses in other states do not have seat belts. It’s left up to the manufacturer and buyer of the bus. 

In fact, I remember that as a kid I rode on a few school buses that did have seat belts. The bus company later removed them because the school complained that kids swung the lap belts to hit other kids, causing injuries. I kinda remember seeing that happen a few times as well …

And when it comes to motorcoaches, up until 2016, most motorcoaches did not have seat belts. 

So why is that? Why is it important to have a seatbelt on when you are in a car but not on a coach bus?

Bigger is better

The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that all passengers on a coach bus must have a seat. It is illegal for a passenger coach bus to operate over capacity. 

Unlike city transit buses, where people can be crammed on board and stand, commercial passenger-carrying motorcoaches are only allowed as many passengers as there are seats.

According to the Scienceabc.com, transportation officials say that one of the most important features of a school bus and motorcoach that makes seat belts less important for safety is called compartmentalization.

The design of seats on a coach bus segregates passengers into small compartments of sorts. Think of eggs in an egg carton and how they are protected from damage by keeping them segregated and divided into small compartments.

On a coach, the seat in front of you is high enough and padded enough to safely stop your forward motion in case of a sudden stop or collision. 

But what about the side collisions? What about those sitting in front without a soft seat to stop them? 

Most coach buses are larger and have more inertia than a personal vehicle. They are also designed with more safety features than a passenger car.

Also, because passengers are sitting up so high and the weight of the coach bus is much greater than most of the surrounding traffic, it is assumed that the passengers would be relatively safe during most collisions. 

Today’s standards

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that starting in 2016, all coaches and buses being built must be equipped with three-point seat belts on every seat. However, anyone owning or operating a coach built before 2016 would not have to get seat belts installed. 

This would spare fleet owners the cost of having to replace old seats on hundreds of thousands of older coaches. Some have calculated a cost of between $7,000 to $10,000 per coach to retrofit a coach with seat belts. But even with that, many carriers bit the bullet and voluntarily installed seat belts on coaches older than 2016. 

Another issue was the evolution of the seat belt. Many older coaches had lap-style seat belts for the driver, and many carriers had lap belts on passenger seats as well. Those seat belts only went over the lap and didn’t have a horizontal strap coming across your torso. 

During crash tests, data showed that the older lap-style seat belts proved to be more dangerous than not having a seat belt at all. This was yet another incentive to replace them with the new three-point seat belts.

Even back in 2009, long before any requirement of seat belts on a large bus, Greyhound took the lead and installed seat belts on its entire fleet. 

Do you have to wear them?

Though all motorcoaches newer than 2016 in the US have seat belts, most passengers don’t have to wear them.

Depending on what state you live in or ride in, the law regarding the use of seat belts on a coach bus will differ. 

According to a website called Capitol Corridor, in the summer of 2018, California passed a law that requires all drivers and passengers on commercial buses to wear a seat belt or face a fine of $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. 

But just like wearing a seatbelt in your own personal car, I don’t think that law is being enforced very strictly for the passengers.

During my years of driving motorcoaches, I’ve transported hundreds of thousands of passengers, if not over a million. And never once have I had one person ask me about a seat belt. Even since 2016, when our fleet started having seat belt-equipped coaches, I very rarely see passengers use them. 

Viewers’ thoughts

Here’s what some of you had to say about my take on the buses and seat belts: 

Jeff Herdzina: As a driver, I wish we had the three-point belts back in the day.   Being in a compartment with that much open room could throw a driver around in a major accident.  The standard belt would still allow a driver to slam into a steering wheel in a high-impact accident.

Victor Landol: I’m on the third week of training for Peter Pan bus in NYC. … All our buses have three-point belts, probably because of the law. But since our fleet still has D models, the driver sometimes has a three-point and sometimes has a lap belt. Thanks for your videos….your videos have prepared me so much to be able to handle this job.

Katherine Rice: Here in Australia, I always remind passengers on my coach that they are required by law to wear their seatbelts, and there is signage reminding them also! 

Bus & Motorcoach News columnist James Wang is co-owner of Peoria Charter Coach Company and a bus geek who shares his passion for the motorcoach industry on his two YouTube channels, J Wang and Motorcoach World

Read more James Wang’s columns here.

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