Europe is strapped in

By Doug Jack

I have watched with interest the proposals that coaches in the United States be fitted with seat belts, as they have been mandatory on coaches on this side of the Atlantic for many years. There is strong evidence that they have saved lives and reduced levels of serious injury. I find it topical to write about the European experience.

It is a sad fact that a considerable amount of legislation on the construction and use of buses and coaches has come about after serious accidents. A change in culture has occurred over the last decade and a half in which safety has become one of the top priorities in vehicle design; with leading manufacturers introducing features considerably in advance of legal requirements.

The first introduction of safety belts in coaches came around 30 years ago, when the German TUV Certification Authority introduced standards for vehicles permitted to travel at 100 kph (62.5 mph) on the extensive German highway network. TUV required lap belts for any seat not protected by a seat immediately in front, meaning the four seats on the first row, the two either side of the gangway and the center seat in the rearmost row.

From 1975 to 1985 as the European highway network expanded, a new generation of coaches and trucks developed with a dramatic increase in engine power and the ability to operate at sustained high speeds. After a number of serious accidents the manufacturers learned many lessons. For one, speed limiters became mandatory.

In the United Kingdom one particular fatal accident in which a coach rolled down a steep embankment, ejecting and crushing a number of passengers, led to mandatory introduction of belts on all seats and the reinforcement of the roof structure to minimize deformation in a rollover situation.

It was not just a simple case of fitting lap belts to each seat and carrying on as before.

The seats on many old coaches bolted into marine plywood floors. In the rapid deceleration from a frontal impact, many passengers fell off their seats and landed in the space behind the seat in front. To prevent seats fitted with safety belts from breaking free in a serious accident, the anchorage needed to be more secure; fitted either into steel rails mounted beneath the floor or to the sidewall of the coach.

In the United Kingdom, the authorities most unusually decided seat belts should be fitted not only to new vehicles but also retrofitted to all existing coaches in circulation. This, of course, created an outcry that neither the seats nor the floors of many older coaches were suitable for retrofitting, and that a serious accident could be made worse by old seats breaking free with passengers belted on to them.

Fortunately this did not happen, although it was a very real risk. The majority of operators fitted steel channels beneath the floor to make seats more secure, and over time almost all those older coaches have cycled out of service.

There were a number of limitations with lap belts. Many were uncomfortable and passengers were not willing to use them.

I remember being at a press event in Sweden a few years ago with Volvo, a most safety-conscious company. As we drove along the typically undulating Swedish roads our hostess asked everyone wearing their seat belts to raise their hands. Not one hand went up. She was horrified that a group of industry professionals were not using safety equipment.

There was also concern that in sudden deceleration, a passenger would pivot at the waist and smash violently into the rear of the seat in front. Padding on the rear of headrests and removing objects that could cause injury such as ashtrays reduced the risk somewhat.

The best solution was the lap and diagonal belt, which contains the passenger more safely in an impact — and is more comfortable to wear.

Today most European manufacturers fit lap and diagonal belts on forward facing exposed seats. Customers can choose whether to have lap or lap and diagonal belts on all other seats.

Passenger attitudes have changed with the times. We all wear belts automatically in a car or a plane and most people now use belts on a coach. Drivers are not required legally to ensure that every passenger is wearing a seat belt, but more and more fleets are introducing a safety video, similar to that given before departing on a flight. Some of these include the message that, if a passenger is injured in an accident and found not to be wearing a belt, he or she will have contributed to the injury and will therefore be liable to a lower level of compensation.

Another important development has to strengthen structures to decrease the risk of deformation in the event of a coach rolling onto its side or roof. Generally, this requires reinforcement where each of the main side pillars meets the roof sticks, often in the form of a triangular wedge at each joint.

This legislation popularly known as R66 permits only a small degree of deformation. The regulations emanated from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

The commission carries out testing in one of three ways: tilting a complete structure from a flat level surface into a full-length pit, using only a section in a similar tilt test, or by computer simulation. The University of Cranfields in England and the University of Madrid in Spain have become specialists in these simulation programs. They help engineers design and develop structures with the minimum amount of steel required to pass the test, which saves on weight and costs.
Australia and the United Kingdom were among the first countries to make R66 mandatory more than 20 years ago.

Subsequently, many other countries have adopted R66, including all the members of the European Union. It is clearly one of the major contributory factors in making coach travel an even safer form of transport.

When seat belts and rollover legislation became mandatory in the United Kingdom, operators suggested their insurance premiums be reduced, citing safer vehicles and the likelihood of fewer and less expensive injuries. While that argument was not directly accepted, it has helped to keep annual premiums at reasonable levels. Compensation for loss of life or serious injury is generally quite a lot lower in Europe than in your country.

Our experience with seat belts has been good. They are not a fit-and-forget item. Technicians check them regularly, and they are part of an annual roadworthiness inspection by the authorities. They give peace of mind to operators and they definitely enhance the high safety reputation of the coach industry.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.