UMass Amherst Researchers Design Seat Belt System that Can Upgrade Safety on Thousands of Motor Coaches Nationwide

bus seat belts

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers from the Center for e-Design at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Engineering have designed a Retrofit Seat Belt System that makes it possible to install the safety devices on an estimated 30,000 motor coaches and intercity buses nationwide that currently don’t have them.

The new devices are expected to become commercially available within the next year. The retrofitted seat belts will allow owners of buses and motor coaches to install the seat belts for about one third to half of the current cost on existing seats, the UMass Amherst research team says.

To help commercialize the Retrofit Seat Belt System, The National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corp) has awarded $50,000 to a research team led by Sundar Krishnamurty, mechanical and industrial engineering. Krishnamurty’s team includes John Collura from the UMass Transportation Center, Douglas Eddy from the Center for e-Design and  Charles and Anne Schewe from Sarah’s Wish Foundation, a foundation created by the Schewes after their daughter was killed in an overseas bus crash 20 years ago. The Schewes have been working with Krishnamurty on the concept for more than a decade. The team is currently seeking a patent on this invention. Anne Schewe is a co-inventor of the device. Charles Schewe is an emeritus professor of marketing at UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management.

The market for the seat belts already exists. All new motor coaches manufactured starting in 2016 will be required to have seat belts but only 20 percent of the existing buses have the safety devices, according to the 2013 Motor Coach Census. Federal safety officials say seat belts with lap and shoulder straps in motor coaches can save lives. For example, seat belts could reduce the risk of fatal injuries by 77 percent in rollover crashes, primarily by preventing occupant ejection on impact.

Motor coach companies aren’t required by law to install safety belts in their existing buses in large part because of high costs. The new retrofit system directly addresses that issue. Estimates are that it costs about $40,000 to $50,000 per motor coach to add lap and shoulder belts to all seats. Krishnamurty’s team estimates that implementing the Retrofit Seat Belt System should cost less than $15,000 per motor coach.

There is a key reason for this cost savings, Krishnamurty says. “This design is affordable because it is the only known way to add seat belts to existing motor coaches without replacement of all the seats. Furthermore, it will be minimally intrusive or noticeable to passengers. Thus, we can expect many bus owners to be interested in a more profitable means to improve the critical safety and comfort of their passengers.”

The system features adequate structural support for the lap and shoulder belts. Some or all of the loads are shared by the added center support structure connected rigidly to the floor via a base plate, and the design can be adjusted for different seat configurations on motor coaches. Based on the design and condition of the motor coach seats, the strength of the center support can be individually customized to support the seat belt design, while maintaining the integrity of the existing bus frame structure.

Collura of the UMass Amherst Transportation Center says, “Our expectation is that some owners will decide to retrofit pre-2016 buses with seat belts as time goes on and their customers will become accustomed to and comfortable with wearing seat belts and thus may choose bus carriers based on the availability of seat belts.”

And there is some support for that view from the industry itself. The research team has a partnership with Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines. Michael Sharff, a 30-year veteran of the bus industry, director of planning and development for Peter Pan and general manager of Peter Pan Transportation Services, is also one of the members of Krishnamurty’s research team. “The federal government requirement to purchase new buses with seat belts takes effect in 2016,” says Sharff. “In advance of this law, Peter Pan started ordering new buses with 3-point seat belts in 2009, the first year they were available.” There are some bus companies that usually buy uses buses and will not have any new buses with seat belts. He says his company and many others  have a number of buses built before 2009 without belts and they have been told that a retrofit of belts on existing seats and floor anchoring was not possible. Sharff says the development of a belt retrofit program by the UMass Amherst team is a huge step in advancing safety and security of bus passengers and he expects great interest in this program by the industry. Increased safety also would reduce liability for companies.

The new seat belt design is specifically for use in motor coaches, but it could potentially be modified for use on school buses. This future adaptation may be important because federal officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are pushing to require seat belts in all school buses in the U.S. Krishnamurty says his team is continuing research on adapting the seat belts to school buses.