Wheelchair Safety on Fixed Route Public Transportation: Riding with Security


Catherine Armstrong Getchell, MS

Mary Ellen Buning, PhD, OTR, ATP

For many wheelchair users, going to work, school, or out into the community often means catching the nearest city bus. For a variety of reasons, driving or using paratransit is not possible or practical for some people with significant mobility impairments, so the fixed route bus is the natural alternative. But just catching the bus is deceptively complicated. Navigating sometimes inaccessible routes to bus stops, boarding bus wheelchair lifts that may or may not work, staring down impatient passengers, and ensuring one's safety while on the bus are all part of the fun of public bus transportation. All ADA-compliant public buses are required to be equipped with wheelchair lifts or ramps, accessible wheelchair stations, four-point strap-type tiedowns that anchor the wheelchair to the bus floor, and lap and shoulder safety belts for the wheelchair user, which are all designed to provide the wheelchair user with an accessible and safe ride on the bus. However, some practicalities exist that can sometimes make all of this equipment cumbersome, time-consuming, and unusable.

In partial fulfillment of a masters degree in Health and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Pittsburgh, the first author conducted an online survey of 283 adult wheelchair users across the United States who ride public, fixed route buses and remain seated in their wheelchairs while on the bus. The purpose of the survey was to learn about the attitudes and knowledge of wheelchair users concerning wheelchair transportation safety equipment (wheelchair tiedowns and safety belts) and to find out the specific barriers to safe and accessible bus transportation faced by wheelchair users. The author also informally surveyed transit agencies to obtain information about the usage policies of those agencies regarding wheelchair tiedowns and occupant safety belts. This article will briefly review the results, discuss the implications of those results, and suggest ways for wheelchair users to improve their traveling experiences on public buses.

Participants were a diverse group, widely distributed across age, geographic region, gender, type of wheeled mobility device, and ethnic background. They used transit systems whose yearly boardings ranged from less than one hundred thousand to several billion.

A total of 66.7% of all 123 transit agencies surveyed require that wheelchairs be secured using the wheelchair tiedowns. However, only 33.2% of wheelchair users in this survey report always being secured with all four tiedown straps. Some participants reported that their buses did not even possess four-point tiedowns as a wheelchair securement system. Being in a rush, desire not to have the wheelchair tied down, working with an untrained or unwilling bus operator, wheelchairs not designed to be easily tied down, and broken or missing tiedown straps also contributed to this low usage rate. Unfortunately, however, a wheelchair that is tied down improperly or left unsecured increases the likelihood of damage to the wheelchair, the wheelchair user, and/or other bus passengers if the bus makes a sudden jerky movement or is involved in an accident. Even heavy powered mobility devices can tip or be damaged by poorly placed or absent tiedown straps. For some users of wheeled mobility devices such as scooters, however, being tied down is either impossible or just extremely time-consuming. Transportation safety groups are now pressuring wheelchair manufacturers to add strong, easily reachable anchor points on wheelchair frames that will make them safely and easily securable.

Use of safety belts for wheelchair users was limited by missing or broken equipment, operators who are unwilling or unable to operate the safety belts, unwillingness of wheelchair users to be belted, and filthy or poorly fitting belts. Given the barriers that survey participants encountered in using safety belts, we can estimate that only 37.8% of wheelchair users surveyed receive adequate crash protection from the safety belts.

While other bus passengers rarely use seatbelts on the bus, it is important to remember that the seats they sit in are designed to improve safety in the event of a crash, and many wheelchairs and seating systems have not been designed to be motor vehicle seats. So the added protection of a safety belt puts wheelchair users on more of an even playing field with passengers sitting in crash-tested seats. However, these belts are often hard to adjust and may thus be too loose or tight, or they may press on vulnerable parts of the body such as the neck or abdomen. It is therefore easy to understand why many wheelchair users do not wish to use the safety belt provided in the vehicle and may instead opt to use their own positioning belts or use no belt at all. Postural or positioning belts are not crash-tested and may break if they are relied on to provide protection in a crash situation. A well-fitting, comfortable, vehicle-mounted safety belt, along with a four-point tiedown system, is currently the best crash protection system for wheelchair users who ride in vehicles.

Almost 80% of participants reported that the bus operator assists them in tying down the wheelchair and donning the safety belt. However, 53.6% of participants report that operators are inadequately trained in using this equipment. Most participants felt that attitude of the operator varies greatly, with some operators being more positive and helpful than others. Fortunately, only 8.1% of participants reported that buses frequently pass them up without stopping to pick them up, so we can surmise that the vast majority of operators do not deny transportation to wheelchair users and are willing to take the little extra time required to board a wheelchair user.

Despite the many discouraging results listed above, quite a few wheelchair users are taking advantage of the added safety that wheelchair tiedowns and safety belts offer. Reasons for choosing to use this equipment included safety of the wheelchair user, safety of other passengers, and increased postural support. Many participants noted that they were required to use this equipment so using it was not a matter of choice.

Due to space constraints, the results of the survey have only briefly been reviewed here. In addition, however, here are some safety tips for wheelchair users who ride in public buses.

  1. If you wish to use the wheelchair occupant safety belt or have your wheelchair tied down, make your wishes clearly known to the bus operator, and report the operator to customer service if he or she is unable or unwilling to assist you.
  2. Do not rely solely on your wheelchair's brakes or positioning belt to keep you safe, as this will provide inadequate crash protection.
  3. If other passengers grumble about the extra time required to use the wheelchair transportation safety equipment, explain that you are increasing their safety by not allowing your chair to move around in the bus.
  4. The next time you purchase a wheelchair, choose one that has been crash-tested and has a “transport safe” label from the manufacturer if you can.
  5. Advocate to your local transit agency for the proper maintenance of and operator training on wheelchair tiedowns and occupant safety belts.
  6. Obtain a copy of The Americans with Disabilities Act and learn more about your rights pertaining to accessible transportation.

We can conclude from this survey that a variety of barriers to safety confront wheelchair users who ride public buses. These include malfunctioning or missing equipment, wheelchairs not designed with transit in mind, bus operator training and attitude, and wheelchair users' unwillingness to use the equipment provided. However, the story is not all negative. Many participants commented in their survey responses that operator attitude and training, equipment design, and wheelchair lift operation have improved over the years. Most transit agencies surveyed were very aware of the ADA and were generally doing their best to provide safe and accessible transportation to people with disabilities. Finally, research is being conducted at The University of Pittsburgh to develop a standardized automated docking system which, with the addition of a small piece of hardware on a person's wheelchair, would allow almost any wheelchair user to drive into a docking station that would effortlessly and securely lock the wheelchair in place. A system such as this would make wheelchair securement quick, easy, and safe. But the best way of improving the overall transit experiences of wheelchair users is for wheelchair users and their communities to keep advocacy efforts toward transit agencies, wheelchair manufacturers, and the general public vibrant and strong.

The study was completed in April 2004 as part of Catherine Armstrong Getchell's Masters Thesis in the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh. This summary was added to this website: February 3, 2005 and updated January 3, 2008

A full peer-reviewed version of this research study will appear in Assistive Technology, the journal of RESNA in December 2007. Review the abstract of this article submitted to Assistive Technology in the publications section of the RESNA website: http://www.resna.org/