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School bus safety dispute.

Increasing numbers of children with disabilities use existing wheeled mobility devices (WMDs) such as wheelchairs, scooters, strollers, powered bases, etc. as a means of accessing both public and personal vehicles. For most, the ability to use their WMD while riding in a transportation vehicle is the only feasible means of gaining access to educational or recreational activities.

Most WMDs currently in the marketplace were not designed to be used as seats within a moving vehicle. As a result, the majority of them do not have designated and tested attachment points for securement in the vehicle, and they cannot be easily or effectively secured to withstand the forces of a crash. Most WMDs will therefore not provide the occupant the same level of safety as that provided by auto and bus seating. This reality creates a safety concern for both the WMD occupant as well for other passengers in the vehicle in the event of a crash situation.

Often, children cannot transfer from their WMD to a regular bus seat and must be transported in their WMD because it contains a specialized seating insert custom-made for the individual. In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of WMDs and seating systems being used.

Essentially, none of these devices has been developed and tested for use as a seat in a transport vehicle because no testing standards exist. Therefore, children are being transported in devices that may be unsafe for transport use.

Most recently, representatives of the pupil transportation organizations have been informed by representatives of the wheelchair industry that stickers will start appearing on WMDs notifying purchasers to this effect.

Another concern is the method by which the WMD is secured to the transport vehicle. A small industry of manufacturers produces and markets a range of restraint devices now used in most school buses, paratransit and personally licensed vehicles to secure existing WMDs. Representatives from this industry have been participating as members of a multidisciplinary task group to develop a national performance standard for restraint devices. This work is almost complete. Completion of the standard, followed by compliance within the industry, will yield a nationally recognized level of restraint device safety performance.

Push for Standards

For several years, many individuals and organizations concerned about the safe transportation of students who need special seating equipment attempted to have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) amend Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 222 to include safe seating standards for students with disabilities. FMVS-222 currently provides safe seating requirements for students without disabilities on school buses, but specifically excludes students with disabilities from that standard.

The lack of a seating standard that addresses the safe transportation of students with disabilities is a primary concern facing both transporters and parents of children requiring special transportation accommodations. The desired standard would include requirements for WMD crash worthiness, specifications for securing the WMD (including occupant protection) and instructions regarding the secured orientation of an occupied WMD in a school bus (forward-facing, rear-facing, etc.).

Response to 504 Complaint

In July 1989, Lyle Stephens, C.E.O. of Dean Transportation, Inc., and Debra Simms filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), concerning school bus seating for students with disabilities. They alleged that the NHTSA had violated section 504 of the amended Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to establish "school bus passenger seating or crash protection requirements for handicapped students who use wheelchairs or require devices other than the traditional school bus passenger seat while being transported."

On Jan. 15, 1993, having completed the required review process in order to respond to the complaint, NHTSA published a final rule in the Federal Register (Vol. 58, No. 10, pages 4586-4599):

"This final rule amends Standard No. 222, School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection. School buses designed (on a voluntary basis or pursuant to a legal requirement other than one issued by this agency) to transport persons in wheelchairs will be required to be equipped with wheelchair securement devices and occupant restraint systems meeting specified performance requirements. Among the performance requirements are ones regarding location and minimum strength for the anchorages of those devices and systems and ones regarding minimum strength of the devices and systems themselves.

"This amendment will complement existing provisions in Standard No. 222 specifying occupant protection requirements for school bus passenger seating and restraining barriers. This amendment will provide a level of occupant protection for students in wheelchairs as comparable to that currently provided to persons able to use standard bench seats as is practicable. In addition, this amendment will prevent potential injuries to all occupants that could be caused by an inadequately secured wheelchair." (from Summary)

Petition for Reconsideration Filed

On Feb. 1, 1993, Mr. Stephens filed a Petition for Reconsideration with the adminstrator of the NHTSA. Here are excerpts from the petition's summary:

1. NHTSA, in amending FMVSS-222, has ignored the safety of handicapped students when seated in wheelchairs and mobile seating devices on a school bus, by failing to establish safety standards for other than bench seats on a school bus.

2. NHTSA, by failing to establish safe seating standards for wheelchairs and other mobile seating devices, and failing to mandate the use of securement and occupant protection equipment, has increased the risk of injury to students riding the same school bus with handicapped students using mobile seating.

3. NHTSA has failed to provide comparable safe seating for handicapped students to the same extent as non-handicapped students by claiming a lack of authority to regulate wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are not the issue. Seating is the issue, and is clearly within the jurisdiction of NHTSA, regardless of whether the seat is stationary or mobile, when used as a seat on a school bus.

4. In amending FMVSS-222, NHTSA has failed to extinguish the claim of discrimination cited in the 1989 Section 504 complaint..."

In closing, Stephens urged that "NHTSA reconsider its action by withdrawing the final rule and take action to:

a) establish mandatory performance standards for the use of mobile seating on school buses comparable to that for bench seating on school buses; and

b) make the use of approved wheelchair securement equipment, occupant protection equipment, and forward-facing seating for all seated passengers on a school bus mandatory."

This controversy will be a major topic of discussion at the Second National Conference on Transporting Students with Disabilities in Atlanta, Ga., in early March. We plan to keep readers informed.

Special thanks to Lyle Stephens, C.E.O., Dean Transportation Inc., Lansing, Mich., and Douglas Hobson, Ph.D., Rehabilitation Technology Program, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Penn., for permitting the adaption of various documents for this article.

Mr. Stephens is co-chairman of the committee to develop wheelchair standards for the 12th National Standards Conference in 1995. Dr. Hobson is president of RESNA. RESNA is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-designated U.S. standards developer and the designated U.S. representative to the International Standards Organization in the area of rehabilitation and assistive technology.
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Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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