NHTSA issues the NPRM on seat belts

By David Hubbard

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that begins the process to mandate lap and shoulder restraint systems based on established U.S. standards and specifications on all newly manufactured motorcoaches. The eventual law becomes effective in January 2014. The stated goal of this rule is to keep passengers secured during rollover crashes and prevent occupant ejection.

This marks the first phase of the comprehensive plan the NHTSA developed in 2007 to improve motorcoach safety, as well as the DOT Motorcoach Safety Action Plan that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood mandated earlier this year. The next action items include roof strength, window glazing, emergency egress and fire suppression, as well as driver fatigue and operator maintenance issues.

NHTSA says at this juncture its proposed rulemaking does not encompass retrofit requirements for older coaches, but seems to have this murkier issue on its radar for future consideration.

But before getting down to the pros and cons of seat belts on coaches, the NHSTA opened its proposal on a strong note; sublime to some perhaps, but critical to the discussion — a working definition of a motorcoach. Before anyone can determine what must be done to make motorcoaches safer, it makes sense for everyone to first agree to the nature of the beast in question. The proposal also defines the other types of vehicles that might apply, such as smaller shuttle buses.

To generally define a bus as a vehicle designed to carry more than 10 passengers is just too broad for this NPRM. The NHTSA narrowed it to basically a bus in excess of 26,000 pounds GVW with six or more seating positions, including the driver and at least two forward-facing seating rows in a cabin constructed over a baggage area. This definition excludes transit buses operating on fixed routes with frequent stops, which do not require seat belts.

The proposed rule amends the current Federal Motor Carrier Vehicle Safety Standard FMVSS 208 on occupant crash protection. It requires lap and shoulder belts on all passenger seating positions on new coaches. The anchorage integrated into the seat structure must be able to absorb a force of 3,000 pounds applied simultaneously at the lap and torso. The three-point restraint must fit a six year old as well as a 95-percentile male passenger standing 6-foot, 2-inches and weighing 223 pounds. It must also be lockable for a child seat.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) actually issued recommendations regarding seat belts on buses and coaches as early as 1990. However, at that time there was no crash data or studies available. According to research conducted in both 2007 and earlier this year, the data bears out the NHTSA’s belief that seat belt assemblies installed on motorcoach passenger seats could reduce the risk of fatal injuries in rollover crashes by 77 percent.

The NHTSA considered and subsequently rejected any two-point lap restraint, saying its testing proved unequivocally that three-point seat belts are more effective in reducing injuries and fatalities.

While there is nothing in the rule to require mandatory enforcement, NHTSA says approximately 20 percent usage of seat belts at a minimum would save one to eight lives annually. The administration is requesting comment on how operators might encourage seat belt use from passive onboard signage reminding passengers to buckle up to enforcement on a par with airline flight attendants patrolling the aisles.

NHTSA puts the cost of adding seat belts and making structural changes to the floor at approximately $12,900 per vehicle. The administration estimates the cost per equivalent life saved ranges from $1.3 million to $9.9 million.

One final item: Where any conflict exists, federal law would preempt any safety requirements that state governments have endeavored to impose.

The complete Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) is available on the NHTSA website at www.nhtsa.gov.