Monday, May 10, 2010

Bus seat belt laws mostly exclude wheelchairs

Lonnie Acton's lifeless body sat in a wheelchair fastened to the floor of a mangled minibus. No shoulder or lap belt protected him.

Those restraints, attached to the bus, are specially made to secure passengers in their wheelchairs. They weren't being used when a tractor-trailer slid across a snowy highway and slammed into the bus in January, killing Acton and two other residents of a special-needs center in western Ohio.

While federal law requires buses to be equipped with straps that lock down wheelchairs, as well as seat belts and shoulder harnesses to secure passengers themselves, laws in Ohio and most states don't require that people in wheelchairs on small buses and vans actually wear the seat belts - even though they're vulnerable to injuries from being tossed around in an accident.

"It just doesn't make any sense," said Acton's stepfather, Steve Hoessli. "If they're required to have restraints, why aren't they required to use them?"

A review by The Associated Press of seat belt laws in all states found just five - Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin - that require both wheelchairs and their users to be secured on paratransit buses that help people in wheelchairs to travel to work, doctor's offices and shopping centers.

Just a handful of other states require seat belt use for wheelchairs, with some exceptions.

Oregon requires buckling up on commercial buses with less than 16 seats but says nothing about floor restraints. New Jersey limits its requirements to passenger cars and vans. North Carolina's law doesn't mention wheelchairs, but a state police spokesman said the rules cover nearly all vehicles.

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