No Seat Belt Protections Required for Persons in Wheelchairs?

Federal law requires buses to be outfitted with straps that lock down wheelchairs, as well as seat belts and shoulder harnesses to secure the passengers themselves. But most states do not require that individuals on buses and vans actually use the seat belts. According to The Associated Press, only five states - Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin - require that both wheelchairs and passengers be secured on the paratransit buses they use to get around.

Oregon law requires buckling up on commercial buses, but says nothing about floor restraints. New Jersey law limits its requirements to passenger cars and vans, but ignores public transit and buses.

A survey conducted by Easter Seals Project Action (ESPA) of wheelchair users who take public and private transportation showed that one in seven had never even used restraints because drivers did not take the time to fasten them or were ignorant of how to do so. "I've seen drivers who drop off the kids and they're in a hurry so they don't take time for each chair," says Margaret Griscti of North Brunswick, N.J., whose son, Stephen, broke his leg when his wheelchair toppled over in a paratransit vehicle.

"If we're not going to require the general public to wear seat belts on buses, we shouldn't require people with disabilities," says Lex Frieden, former head of the National Council on Disability, who helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the 1980s. "Clearly, one could argue we need to look after the well-being of the people using these vehicles, but that leads us to a patronizing approach."

However, many disagree. "It just doesn't make any sense," says Steve Hoessli, whose stepson was killed along with two others when a tractor-trailer slammed into their minibus on the way to a special needs center. "If they're required to have restraints, why aren't they required to use them?"

A study conducted by the University of Michigan revealed that "simply strapping a wheelchair to the floor of a bus or van wasn't enough protection." Of the 52 accidents examined by the university, the wheelchairs had been strapped to the floor of the vehicle the majority of the time but the passengers themselves had not been secured. "By and large, many of these injuries are preventable if the restraints had been used, or used properly," says Gina Bertocci, a University of Louisville professor.

Larry Schneider, a professor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, says he hopes legislation being proposed in Massachusetts will become the model for other states. It requires that wheelchairs and passengers be secured on all paratransit buses and vans, and that all caregivers and drivers acquire special training.

Some government operated buses do require all passengers to be belted, but standards vary from city to city. "It's a liability issue," says Robert Hiett, who manages a paratransit service in Griffin, Ga. "If we didn't properly secure them and there's an accident, we'd get in all kinds of problems. Defending one lawsuit could put us out of business."

Paula Cieplik and her son, Kenny, of Middleborough, Mass., pushed for the proposed legislation after he was injured in a crash when the seat belt holding him in his wheelchair broke, throwing him from his seat. "The people who are most vulnerable aren't protected," she says. "It's mind-boggling."