Motor coach buses will have seat belts, but not city buses. Why?

On-board video captures terrifying bus crash

On-board cameras capture the fatal collision between a pickup truck and commuter bus in uptown Charlotte.
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On-board cameras capture the fatal collision between a pickup truck and commuter bus in uptown Charlotte.

When a city bus collided with a Ford F-150 truck last month, killing the pickup’s driver, bus passenger Rosa Morris said the impact slammed her face against the window.

“The bone below my eye still hurts,” said Morris, one of eight people on the bus taken to the hospital. “There is tingling in my shoulder, my hand and foot. I had to miss two weeks of work.”

The Charlotte Area Transit System video camera inside the bus shows other passengers were thrown farther. Passengers who sat with their backs against the window were launched several yards across the bus.

The video raises the question: Why wasn’t anyone wearing a seat belt?

Or to be more clear, why don’t CATS buses have them?

CATS said in a statement that the Federal Transit Administration does not require that municipal buses have seat belts.

The only seat belts on CATS regular buses are for drivers and to secure wheelchairs. CATS Special Transportation Services buses – which carry people with disabilities – do have seat belts.

Among the reasons the FTA doesn’t mandate seat belts: Local buses are usually not traveling at high speeds; people are getting on and off the bus frequently; and people are sometimes standing.

Required on motor coaches

But should city buses have seat belts, even if they are optional?

Morris said she would wear a seat belt if one were available.

“We slide around a lot anyway,” she said. “And there are people with kids – the parents are always having to keep them from sliding out of their seats.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced two years ago new regulations for motor coaches and other large buses. Starting in 2016, those buses must have three-point shoulder-lap seat belts.

The change was made in response to a number of deadly bus crashes, in which buses traveling on highways at high speeds rolled over.

But the debate hasn’t trickled down to municipal buses, even though they sometimes travel on highways at high speeds. CATS, for instance, has several express routes for commuters who use Interstate 77 and other freeways.

The American Public Transportation Association said it isn’t aware of any transit system whose buses have seat belts.

“Buses are one of the safest ways to travel,” said Mantill Williams, a representative for APTA.

Williams acknowledged, however, that the design of some city buses could be less safe than the design of school buses and many motor coaches. In those buses, the seats are “compartmentalized” with a padded seat in front of them. In case of a non-rollover accident, passengers can only be thrown so far.

School buses and motor coaches don’t have seats that face an open area of the bus, where there is a farther distance for people to move in case of an accident.

Fatal crash

The Sept. 28 crash happened on East Third Street near the off ramp for Interstate 277. The pickup was on the off ramp and had a red light, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department report.

The truck swerved around the cars that were stopped at the red light. Police have said that’s because the brakes failed. The truck entered the intersection, where it collided with the CATS bus, which was going 35 mph.

The driver of the truck, Melanie Myers, a preschool teacher, was killed.

School buses exempt

The controversy over seat belts usually focuses on school buses. Most states – including North Carolina – don’t require regular-sized school buses to have seat belts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools buses do not have seat belts.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said there is “insufficient reason” to require seat belts on school buses. Among the reasons: Students could use the belts as weapons. And in case of an emergency, the belts might make it more difficult to evacuate students.

Those reasons don’t apply to municipal buses, or at least not to the same degree.

CATS declined to comment in detail about why its buses don’t have seat belts.

Long-standing question

But Ron Tober, a former CATS chief executive who has worked in transit for 45 years, offered some explanation.

He said the question of having seat belts has been around “as long as I have been in transit.”

He said a lap belt would provide some “minimal protection” during the accidents most city buses are in. But he said it’s not practical to make them mandatory.

He added: “It’s highly unlikely that many people on a city bus would use them.”

“Rollovers of buses don’t happen very often, but when they do, a lap belt won’t do much to protect people and may actually prove to be harmful,” he added.

Tober also said he thought lap belts could be a nuisance for people who don’t want to use them. Installing and maintaining the belts would also be expensive, he said.

Those points are similar to arguments that were made decades ago in opposition to expanding seat belts in cars and, more recently, motor coaches.

Here is what the federal government said when Foxx’s Transportation Department announced new belt regulations for motor coaches: “Buckling up is the most effective way to prevent deaths and injuries in all vehicular crashes, including motor coaches,” said Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “Requiring seat belts in new models is another strong step we are taking to reach an even higher level of safety for bus passengers.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs