Retrofitted seat belts could come at a price

By Matthew A. Daecher

Last year it became clear that the government would issue a seat belt mandate for new motorcoaches. This would not come as a complete surprise to the industry given recent high profile fatal accidents involving ejections, and especially the motorcoach-specific crash testing NHTSA has conducted on the effectiveness of passenger restraints.

Still, operators have been waiting with anticipation to see precisely what the government would mandate in this imminent regulation. Of particular interest to many coach operators is not what will be required on new coaches, but rather what will be required — or not — with regard to retrofitting existing coaches.

The widespread concern among operators is once the feds announce a standard that requires restraints on all newly manufactured coaches, customer demand will necessitate retrofitting seatbelts on existing coaches.

Significant fanfare

While I think there will be significant fanfare and attention to go along with such an announcement, memories are short for many and I am just not as sure as some operators that their customers will demand seat belts on all of their chartered coaches. Student groups might be the exception. The lack of seat belts has not kept customers from using coaches.

Experience has shown that a great number of passengers seldom use the seat belts on vehicles with restraint systems such as minibuses.

Nonetheless, I do believe a significant number of operators will move toward retrofitting at least a portion of their existing fleet with seatbelts largely to accommodate perceived customer demand; to gain a competitive edge over the competition; and to protect themselves from the risk of litigation. Though questions remain on whether the proposed mandate will include standards for retrofitting, operators can be certain their decision to retrofit or not must be an informed one.

Demand for retrofitting

Coach and seat manufacturers have anticipated the demand for retrofitting and have come up with several solutions that vary in types of restraint and cost. While operators may have several available options other than the OEM-sanctioned systems, they must also approach any aftermarket product with extreme caution and forethought. Saving money by choosing a non-sanctioned solution only increases the risk to carriers in the event of injuries or claims that involve the restraint system.

Essentially, the decision to retrofit or not to retrofit comes down to two basic questions: What type of restraint system to install and whose product to use. Retrofitting coaches with three-point lap and shoulder belt systems to meet the new coach standard will be very costly. It will require structural changes to most coach floors, as well as the wholesale replacement of all seats. The coach manufacturer will have to make these changes, which, needless to say, are simply cost prohibitive for most coach operators without funding assistance.

While the two-point systems are certainly more affordable, they offer less protection than three-belt systems. In fact, crash and sled testing data indicate that head and neck injuries sustained during frontal crashes are more severe for two-point system users than for those not wearing any restraints whatsoever.

Cost flexibility

Additionally, testing has not ascertained the improved safety from a two-point system in the event of a rollover, leaving uncertain the degree of protection afforded during the historically most catastrophic types of events. Unfortunately, these two-point restraint systems will be the only systems with enough cost flexibility to allow many operators to retrofit their coaches.

Regardless of the type of restraint system they choose, operators need to conduct due diligence on the supplier. Choose suppliers with experience in the motorcoach industry; whose products are certified and meet applicable and industry standards; and who have published vehicle-specific applicability and installation guides to manage as much as possible the risk to the carrier. The industry will undoubtedly see many more aftermarket restraint products come on the market.

Many of these products will lack the backing of any such credibility. My advice is to simply steer clear of any quick fix and most likely much cheaper solution.

The more important considerations in a restraint system is its applicability with the specific coach and seats being retrofitted; whether the belts and anchorages meet applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS); and if it meets other voluntary standards such as European or Australian crash standards.

Some products may even meet other federal vehicle safety standards even though they are not required for a motorcoach.

Matthew A. Daecher is president and CEO of Daecher Consulting Group, Inc., Camp Hills, CA. [ ]

One Response to “Retrofitted seat belts could come at a price”

  1. Nick Stephens

    Since the horrific coach crashes of December 1989, in New South Wales, Australia, A new set of regulations has been imposed upon the industry. Rollover standards based on European Design Rules have been made mandatory. Seat Belt fitting also has been made compulsory. Firstly, retrofitting existing Long Distance Coaches with lap-belts. The next step being that of installing lap-sash belt equipped seats as a retrofit, after body strengthening. The final step being that of new Coaches supplied with seats that have integrated lap-sash belts. There are a number of seat suppliers that operators can choose from for the acquisition of seating.

    To be prepared for forthcoming USA regulations, study the Australian experience from 1989 until the present day.

    Organisations that could assist with information are the Australian Federal Office of Road Safety, Standards Australia, Australian Bus & Coach Assocation & their state Bus & Coach Associations.

    Also, seat suppliers and bus and coach builders.