I rarely come across an attorney who understands seatbelt requirements on public transportation. This is because, with the exception of school buses in New Jersey, there are no requirements at any level (Federal or state) for using them. There are several broad requirements for installing them:
- NHTSA requires their installation at every seat position on any vehicle weighting less than 10,000 lbs. GVWR
- The ADA requires the installation of three-point seatbelts at every wheelchair position
- Three states (New York, New Jersey and Florida) require the installations of lap belts on schoolbuses of every size and mass, while three others (Louisiana, California and Texas) require the installation of three-point belts
- Congress has been discussing the requirement for three-point belts to be installed on all motorcoaches for a number of years, and for most of those years, while fighting viciously against the requirement, industry representatives have felt that the ruling would come “any day now”
As an expert witness, I have argued forcefully (and usually successfully) that installation implies usage — otherwise, the installation would be a significant waste of taxpayers’ money — an argument dear to the hearts of most jurors. And I have argued, particularly when disabled, elderly or other vulnerable passengers are transported, that seatbelt usage should not only be demanded, but that it should be monitored and enforced. Keep in mind that every time the vehicle stops, with little else to do, the driver has an opportunity to peer into his or her typically oversized convex interior rear-view mirror to monitor compliance with his or her company’s policy requiring it.
Finally, in a survey I took of 240 fellow-members of the Access Committee of the American Public Transportation Association, to which I belong, I found that 90 percent of all transit drivers dealing with wheelchair passengers, and most paratransit drivers whose entire fleet is usually equipped with seatbelts at every seat position, do one of the following:
- Ask the passenger if he or she can secure the occupant into the wheelchair or seat
- Encourage the passenger to allow him or her to secure the occupant into the wheelchair or seat
- Simply begin securing the passenger into the wheelchair or seat, and cease only if instructed to do so
Most states have “seatbelt laws” for common automobile accidents that prevent the defendant from arguing that the incident his driver caused would not have created the same extent of injury, or the injury at all, if the plaintiff or decedent had been wearing his or her seatbelt. Such rulings have no place in public transportation-related lawsuits. Instead, the attorney (presumably via his or her expert) must know the industry standards for the mode involved, must accept the regulatory limitations, and must use the eggshell nature of most of the passengers so injured to reinforce the need to follow the industry standard relentlessly.