The routine is pretty much standard. Students wait for the school bus in the morning, hop aboard and get a ride to school. At the end of the day, the process is repeated in the opposite direction, the students leaving campus on a school bus to be dropped off at individual stops.
Home is only an intermission in an operation that continues day in and day out day over the span of a student’s school career.
For students confined to wheelchairs, however, the sequence is almost the same—just with a few extra steps thrown in. These additional procedures are done for safety, obviously. No matter the situation, districts and school bus drivers want their passengers to arrive at their destinations safe and sound.
This means, at times, precise processes that must be followed to stand by this objective. This means committing to training to stay current on the latest safety standards to transport students in wheelchairs. This means having specific, up-to-date knowledge of wheelchair-anchored lap belts and the most recent tie-down techniques.
Several of these techniques are established by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, an association of people with an interest in technology and disability.
One procedure that school bus drivers should be well-practiced in, is WC-18, a RESNA standard that covers wheelchair tie downs and occupant restraint systems (WTORS) that secure wheelchair and provide crash protection for riders in wheelchairs.
WC-18 is an improved version of the old standards put forth by SAE J2249, ‘Wheelchair Tiedown and Occupant Restraint Systems for Use in Motor Vehicles.’ Transportation providers are encouraged use of products that comply with WC-18—which was last revised in 2012—instead of J2249.
“Various departments of education and individual districts throughout the country have adopted WC-18 as they revise their bus specifications for new procurements,” said Darren Reaume, a national training manager for Q’Straint, a developer of wheelchair passenger safety solutions for public and private transportation.
He said the Florida-based, international company makes belts for the wheelchair manufacturers to be used on the crash-tested models.
Reaume pointed to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute as resource for discovering which wheelchair makes and models of are available with a wheelchair-anchored lap belts.
“About 80 percent of the wheelchairs we crash test UMTRI have the crashworthy wheelchair-anchored lap belt,” said Miriam Manary, a senior research associate in the Biosciences Group, joined UMTRI in 1988.
She added that “in the many wheelchair crash/injury events we have investigated, nearly all wheelchairs were secured to the vehicle, but many occupants in the wheelchairs did not have a crashworthy seatbelt or had one that was not fitted well to their body.”
According to the UMTRI website, WC18 encourages and promotes the design, testing, installation and use of WTORS that, “provide effective frontal-crash protection for forward-facing occupants in wheelchairs comparable to that provided by OEM occupant-protection systems that must comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards.”
The website further states that “the primary purpose (of WC-18) is to reduce the likelihood of serious and fatal injuries to occupants seated in wheelchairs who are involved in frontal vehicle crashes.”
A renowned expert on child-restraint systems, Manary’s research has focused on biomechanics and human-factors research for the automotive industry, conducting evaluations of wheelchairs, wheelchair-securement systems and wheelchair-occupant restraint systems.
“The main issue with WTORS use is misuse or non-use of the seatbelt portion of the systems,” Manary said, who holds a bachelor of science engineering with a concentration in biomedical engineering from Tulane University and a master’s degree in bioengineering from the University of Michigan.
Manary is also certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as an instructor of child-passenger-safety technicians and is the chair of the RESNA Committee on Wheelchairs and Transportation.
She reported that fit is one area where wheelchair-anchored belts make a big difference, since they are part of the wheelchair and can be fitted to the user; however, a common mistake she has seen is that people misjudge postural supports for crashworthy seat belts.
Due to this, Manary said, “We are hoping that education efforts can boost usage rates.”
One such opportunity can be found at the Q’Straint National Training Seminar held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Entering its 15th year, the NTS was started in 2002 by Reaume’s father, Jim, for those who effect change and influence practices within their organizations.
Previous guests have included specification writers, Department of Transportation and Department of Education administrators, transportation leaders, safety trainers and Q’Straint/Sure-Lok dealers.
Geared towards the school bus industry, specifically, the event is split into two sessions: One focuses on school transit, the other hones attention on paratransit.
Q’Straint has estimated that more than 900 people have attended over the years. Registration to attend the 2017 NTS opens April 1.
According to Reaume, the National Congress on Student Transportation writing committee has stated that WC-18 will be reviewed as part of the 2020 update.
“In the meantime, school districts and transportation providers concerned with reducing their liability and providing the safest equipment for their passengers should proactively specify that their securement equipment on new vehicle purchases meet the WC-18 standard,” he added.
Also, Reaume stated that the combination of WC-18 securement equipment with the properly vetted wheelchairs that have a crash-tested lap belt is light years easier and safer than previous wheelchair securements.
Further, as more fleets gradually comply with the WC-18 standards, Reaume said transportation providers will need to train their drivers to recognize which vehicles are WC-18 compliant and which have older, non-compliant equipment that, “require the operator to continue to use the full occupant restraint even when transporting WC-19 chairs with an integrated lap belt.”
Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted from the March 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.