Today’s marketplace is sending signals on what’s to come in the next generation of school bus seating technology. The biggest trends — cited by seating suppliers and a recent School Transportation News survey of transportation directors — point to the need for vandalism prevention, style enhancement, optimized capacity, weight reduction and restraints, especially as state laws address three-point seat belts on large buses.
Safety is at the forefront of every discussion about how to make a better seat, yet factors such as durability and life span also affect purchasing decisions.
“The industry seems to be rebounding a little from the recession, and that will help further development of new technologies,” said Tony Everett, vice president at HSM Transportation Solutions, which owns the C.E. White brand and makes its own line of seat covers and foam.
PATCHING SCHOOL BUS SEATS
Replacing damaged seat covers has become a common practice in response to student misbehavior.
According to STN’s nationwide survey in October, more than half of the 200-plus transportation directors who responded said they have invested in seat repairs over the past decade, many within two to four years of use. Only a small percentage (14 percent) never replaced their school bus seat covers.
The most common reason is vandalism, but many students simply put a lot of wear and tear on the seats. While many directors may not be in the market for vandalism-resistant seats (65 percent said they are not interested in purchasing them), seating suppliers are urging student transporters to look at some improved and affordable solutions developed in recent years.
“New polyurethane foam is much safer than the PVC resin vinyl used in today’s school bus seating solutions and is much closer to that used in passenger cars,” said Heavy Duty Bus Parts President Brandon Billingsley, who noted the same technology is currently used to create door handles and dashboards.
He referred to his company’s I-Skin product, which is a cover replacement using flame-proof and vandalism-resistant materials, as well as built-in shapes to correctly retain seated passengers. I-Skin is built in a clamshell type mold, which creates a cavity in the final product to be used over the frame of a school bus seat with a flame-proof fastener.
When it comes to eliminating graffiti, a few districts are utilizing dual-color seats with black backs. Stylish front covers come in lighter shades, which prevent overheating, while the black seatbacks can reduce vandalism significantly.
At Dallas County Schools, for example, black seatbacks with zippers and adjustable latches are installed on school buses. When there’s damage, in the form of cuts or the application of correction, a new backing is easily replaced. The district’s vandalism policy also requires the culprits to pay for the new replacement.
“We have enforced seat assignments, and kids in vandalized seats are responsible. They may say they didn’t do it, but they share in the cost,” said Aaron Hobbs, executive director of transportation for Dallas County Schools.
REGULATION DRIVES DEMAND FOR SEAT BELTS
This year, suppliers said they are responding to higher demand for lap/shoulder belt seating, especially where they are mandated for large school buses in Texas, California and certain proactive school districts.
“This growth can be attributed to the increased recognition of the limits of compartmentalization protections,” said Charlie Vits, market development manager for SafeGuard.
In investigating two fatal school bus crashes in 2012, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that compartmentalization is incomplete and does not protect passengers during lateral impacts, in rollovers and from ejection.
In 2011, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated threepoint seat belts on Type A small buses (less than 10,000-pound GVWR), but not large school buses. The agency strongly encourages states and districts to voluntarily install three-point belts using its guidelines.
California, Texas and random local districts elsewhere have required three-point belts on large school buses for several years. In February, due in large part to NTSB’s recommendation, NASDPTS revised its position encouraging other states and school districts to implement mandatory usage policies for lap/shoulder belts on all buses, along with necessary training for all.
Despite it all, STN’s survey results show three-quarters of transportation directors still think compartmentalization is enough to provide optimum protection. Only 10 percent fully agreed with mandates, and 15 percent said they are unsure of where they stand on compartmentalization versus three-point belt mandates.
More than half of the respondents would not go as far as considering buying new seat belt–equipped school buses. Twenty-six percent said they would make the purchase, with the remainder undecided. Some cited other
factors for their hesitancy to make new school bus purchases for the sake of lap/shoulder belts, including equipment cost, rider capacity and the potential use of belts as weapons.
SafeGuard, meanwhile, is taking an opportunity to address the confusion, using its own crash test findings and product demonstrations to educate audiences. The company also continues to advance its current line of seating with better design and manufacturing processes. Detail changes are helping to enhance serviceability and increase seating capacity, the company stated.
“Equipping of buses with lap/shoulder belt seating is best accomplished as part of OEM seating on new buses. But options for aftermarket replacement seating exists,” added Vits. He noted growth for both of SafeGuard’s BTI and XChange optional replacement seat backs and its full seat replacements.
SEATING THAT IMPROVES BEHAVIOR
Better behavior, in addition to safety, has become an incentive for including lap/shoulder belts in school buses.
“We have already purchased two buses with (three-point) seat belts, and theyhelps prevent students from leaving their seats and turning around,” said Randy Cooper of San Antonio Union School District in Lockwood, California.
California requires the lap/shoulder belts be installed in new buses, and if the buses have the occupant restraint systems than students shall use them. But enforcement is up to the district, and that’s an issue to be tackled no matter the part of the country where seat belts are used on school buses.
Children do not always sit perfectly upright and forward in seats, like test dummies do. Without seat belts, they sit halfway on the seat and into the aisles, sideway stretched across the seat, on their knees facing rearward, standing up and leaning on the seat in front, bending forward or in some other out-of-position manner.
“We have crashed buses to see what happens in these positions. The resulting videos have been reviewed by medical experts who described various potential injuries. These could have all been prevented had the students been seated and belted properly,” said Vits.
SafeGuard also found that three-point belts have significantly improved behavior, as reported by school districts with enforceable usage policies. As behavior improves, noise levels and other distractions within the bus are reduced, allowing bus operators to focus on their main responsibility: to drive the bus safely.
INNOVATION OPTIMIZING CAPACITY
New products are also providing more value for Head Start and preschool programs that must address federal and state regulations. Suppliers also report increasing demand for integrated child seats that increase school bus capacity.
“Restraint goes by weight and height. Every time regulation changes, that affects Head Start. There’s a price tag for it. Extra budget is needed, and it could be a problem without planning ahead,” said Nancy Netherland, a Head Start/Early Head Start consultant.
Last year, HSM introduced a portable C.E. White child restraint system that folds into a carrying case with an adjustable strap for easy transport and storage. The product aims to fulfill NHTSA’s recommendation that child restraint systems be replaced every five years to address wear issues.
A belt on HSM’s portable system wraps around and attaches to the bus seat. A built-in, five-point harness provides an adjustable restraint system to allow children from 20 to 90 pounds to sit comfortably and safely.
To address capacity, SynTec Seating Solutions also introduced a flexible integrated child seat with five-point harnesses. It can be quickly converted to accommodate one, two or three children weighing up to 85 pounds each. The module folds into a seatback when not in use.
“This seat can be retrofitted to any bus’ body style and all Thomas buses. It’s the best of both worlds,” said Rick Smith, marketing and sales manager at SynTec, adding that more product announcements will be made during the NAPT conference this month.
SPECIAL NEEDS SEATING
For special needs riders, a new standard called WC18 will go into effect in December 2015. It aims to improve safety for wheelchair- bound passengers, who are more vulnerable in the event of a frontal crash, by raising the bar for installation and use of wheelchair tie-downs and occupant restraint systems.
A concern is with power chairs and heavier equipment that need to be secured to the vehicle. Manufacturers are designing equipment to handle these weights, as well as to meet WC18.
Advocates urge wider communication, training for safely securing special needs students in their seats and wise purchasing decisions for compliant wheelchair equipment. If transporters aren’t already doing it, work closely with the special education staff to ensure proper equipment and procedures, recommended Sue Shutrump, supervisor of occupational and physical therapy for Trumbull County Educational Service Center in Ohio.
Other commercial bus niches, especially those used by the general public, are coming out with seats that alleviate health concerns, including fabrics that are antimicrobial, antibacterial and moisture repellant. Another trend is sustainable seating, where bio-cushions are made with 100-percent recycled yarn and naturally based polyol, which uses up to 40 percent less fossil fuels than traditional petroleum-based foams.