Seat belts likely to be required on tour buses

After years of debate, industry heel dragging and government inaction, most tour bus companies are on track to outfit their vehicles with passenger seat belts in the next few years.

The push has come in the wake of data showing that more than 60 percent of fatalities in tour bus accidents take place when the vehicle overturns. Without seat belts, passengers often are thrown from the bus, with deadly consequences.

The Department of Transportation's National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration said in a 2010 report that seat belts might reduce fatalities in rollover accidents by 77 percent. That assumes passengers would use the safety restraints. Some tour bus operators say that even when buses are equipped with seat belts, 10 percent of passengers, or fewer, use them.

New seat belt regulations this year are expected to require seat belts in tour buses, and many tour companies, knowing the regulations are imminent, already have begun switching to buses outfitted with the restraints.

Data from the traffic safety agency show that between 2003 and 2009, 133 people were killed in motor coach accidents.

In a 2010 statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "Seat belts save lives, and putting them in motor coaches just makes sense."

The traffic safety agency has issued several reports in recent years as well as two action plans, the second of which was published last year.

Many companies are way ahead of the government.

Maureen Richmond, a spokeswoman for Greyhound, the nation's largest interstate bus company, said the company already has seatbelts in 75 percent of its motor coaches.

"We started to install them in 2008," Richmond said. "We took a look at what our customers were asking for."

She said each new bus that replaces an old one in the Greyhound fleet will have lap and shoulder belts. She was unsure how much longer it would take before all of the company's buses are equipped.

Other company owners said they believe a seatbelt requirement is inevitable, and they have already begun making the shift.

The story is different with school buses. In 2005, California became the first state to require lap and shoulder belts on new school buses.

Since 1977, the federal government has required school buses to use "compartmentalization" -- high, padded seat backs designed to absorb impact in a crash. But the system didn't provide protection in rollovers or prevent children from being ejected.

Studies from pilot programs in the six states where school bus seat belts are required -- and students are required to wear them -- showed that at least 75 percent of elementary students buckle up; among middle and high school students, compliance dropped to 50 percent or less, according to the National School Transportation Association.

In New York, the only state that requires seat belts but does not insist that students use them, the rate is close to zero at all grade levels, the association said.

Getting seat belts on a new bus costs $8,500 to $13,000.

Dan Ronan, spokesman for the American Bus Association, said despite the ongoing debate, seat belts will be a standard feature on buses in the near future. They are an option on almost any new bus, and buyers are requesting them.

"I can't think of anyone who I've heard of who has bought a new coach in the last 18 months or a year that hasn't put in seat belts," Ronan said.

The only question is how soon the restraints will be required.

"The manufacturers are ready, and the companies are ready," Ronan said. "We're waiting for the Department of Transportation to make a final ruling."

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