Bus seat belt laws mostly exclude wheelchairs

By JOHN SEEWER

The Associated Press
Monday, May 10, 2010; 3:06 PM

TOLEDO, Ohio — Lonnie Acton’s lifeless body sat in a wheelchair fastened to the floor of a mangled minibus. No shoulder or lap belt protected him.

Those restraints, attached to the bus, are specially made to secure passengers in their wheelchairs. They weren’t being used when a tractor-trailer slid across a snowy highway and slammed into the bus in January, killing Acton and two other residents of a special-needs center in western Ohio.

While federal law requires buses to be equipped with straps that lock down wheelchairs, as well as seat belts and shoulder harnesses to secure passengers themselves, laws in Ohio and most states don’t require that people in wheelchairs on small buses and vans actually wear the seat belts – even though they’re vulnerable to injuries from being tossed around in an accident.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Acton’s stepfather, Steve Hoessli. “If they’re required to have restraints, why aren’t they required to use them?”

A review by The Associated Press of seat belt laws in all states found just five – Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin – that require both wheelchairs and their users to be secured on paratransit buses that help people in wheelchairs to travel to work, doctor’s offices and shopping centers.

Just a handful of other states require seat belt use for wheelchairs, with some exceptions.

Oregon requires buckling up on commercial buses with less than 16 seats but says nothing about floor restraints. New Jersey limits its requirements to passenger cars and vans. North Carolina’s law doesn’t mention wheelchairs, but a state police spokesman said the rules cover nearly all vehicles.

It’s not known how many people riding in wheelchairs are injured in vehicle accidents because little data are available.

University of Michigan researchers have found 52 auto crashes involving wheelchairs during the past three years. While not a comprehensive list, the accident data show that simply strapping a wheelchair to the floor of a bus or van wasn’t enough protection.

In most of the crashes the wheelchairs were secured. However, seat belts weren’t always used or fastened the right way, and in some instances, people slid from under lap belts and were injured.

“By and large, many of these injuries are preventable if the restraints had been used, or used properly,” said Gina Bertocci, a professor who works in wheelchair transportation safety at the University of Louisville.

A survey of wheelchair users who ride on public and private transportation found in 2007 that one in seven never used restraints, mainly because drivers didn’t take time or know how to secure their wheelchairs and lap belts, according to Easter Seals Project Action, a program that helps the disabled with transportation.

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