New SafeGuard seat solves capacity issues related to school bus seat belts
The public demand for seat belts — namely three-point lap/shoulder restraints — in school buses is growing. And with the recent passage of a Texas bill that requires all school buses purchased on or after Sept. 1, 2010, be equipped with three-point lap/shoulder restraints, demand is clearly having an effect on how other state legislators are voting.
Opponents to the inclusion of passenger restraints has always touted the idea of lost passenger capacity. By adding seat belts, some say children will only be able to sit two to a seat instead of three. This reduction in per-bus student capacity might demand districts purchase more buses to compensate. But one company has spent the last year trying to solve what many consider the biggest roadblock to school bus seat belt legislation.
The new SafeGuard FlexSeat offers school districts the space and protection to properly secure either three elementary students or two middle or high school students in the same seat.
“The FlexSeat was designed specifically as a result of listening to our customers across the country and their concerns about capacity reduction,” said James Johnson, director of sales for the on-highway and bus group of IMMI/SafeGuard. “Our goal was to be able to keep kids on the bus and provide them with superior protection in side impacts and rollovers. We know that the yellow school bus is the safest way to get to and from school, and the FlexSeat will make it safer.”
The new seat used existing SafeGuard-tested SmartFrame technology that consists of an independent inner frame that flexes forward with the belted passenger during the event of an accident. The outer frame remains in its original position to absorb the energy from any unbelted students seated behind, preserving the functionality of compartmentalization.
The new FlexSeat also offers buckles that can be easily repositioned for either two or three passengers per seat. By simply sliding the buckles over, three elementary-sized children or two full-sized high school students can be accommodated in the same seat.
“Most pre-K and Head Start programs use our STAR student add-on restraint, which is certainly compatible with the SafeGuard FlexSeat,” said Johnson. “We’re working on making the integrated child seat an option, and that will be available in late 2008.”
Testing, One, Two…
From conception to development to introduction, the FlexSeat project took approximately one year. Once the initial prototype was completed, SafeGuard engineers began testing it at the company’s test facility this past May. The Center For Advanced Product Evaluation (CAPE) combines state-of-the-art technology and specialized engineering to provide the company as well as its OEM clients with the resources to develop and evaluate vehicles, vehicle systems and vehicle components for structural integrity, robustness, crashworthiness and occupant protection.
“We did a very thorough test series that can be lumped in five general areas: compartmentalization, strength tests, occupant protection, seat belts and ‘other,’” said Jim Chinni, the director of CAPE. “Because the product is for a regulated environment, there’s a series of regulatory tests and a series of voluntary tests that we do as a company.”
To meet the requirements of FMVSS 222 (high-backed, well-padded, and well-constructed seats), energy absorption tests were performed on the seat that consisted of pushing the seat-back in a forward and rearward direction to make sure it absorbs energy sufficiently.
Sled tests were then performed with test dummies to record the effects on occupants during a 30-mph crash with different variations of the number of rows and different-sized dummies in different positions, belted and unbelted.
“We also tested for the force that is required to push down on the (release) button on the buckle to ensure children can unbuckle at any time. Webbing is tested after it is exposed to light and dirt to check for longevity and strength. All these tests are performed to ensure that these seat belts work the way they’re supposed to work at all times,” said Chinni.
The final battery of tests focuses on ensuring the seats will survive the real-world school bus environment.
“We do a lot of vibration testing to make sure that our product works and will withstand that environment. In the school bus industry there’s a burn test that has to be done on vinyl to make sure that if the vehicle caught on fire, that the vinyl doesn’t propagate any kind of flame,” Chinni added.
Working in Collaboration
Early on in the development of the FlexSeat, SafeGuard decided to partner with Thomas Built Buses to introduce the new product to the school bus industry. Thomas assisted with engineering services, product marketing and focus group research. The seat was also tested on Thomas Built buses at CAPE.
“With customer focus group input and technical support from Thomas Built Buses, SafeGuard has designed a seating system that provides a three-point lap/shoulder belt for one, two or three passengers per seat and is tested to FMVSS 210, 213 and 222,” said Ken Hedgecock, vice president of sales, marketing and service for Thomas Built Buses. “I think the number of buses built with three-point lap/shoulder belts will grow regardless now that Safeguard has virtually eliminated the issue of reduced passenger capacity.”
End-user opinion is the final test for many products, and SafeGuard wasted no time collecting input from state directors and high-level administration members within the school bus industry. The session began with a short presentation of the seat, followed by a question, answer and comment period. The focus group attendees were then asked to complete a survey.
“Some of the questions that came up concerned ease of maintenance to support seat replacement, cushion replacement, seat-back replacement, and seat belt replacement,” said Jerry Wynne, director of transportation, Beaufort County School District, N.C. “This product really removes a huge obstacle for pupil transportation officials trying to balance student safety, capital outlay and operational costs based on previous lap/shoulder belt configurations.”
The SafeGuard FlexSeat will be available on all Thomas school buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of over 10,000 pounds starting January 2008.
Reprinted from the November 2007 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.