TOLEDO, Ohio — 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?"
Patchwork of laws
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.
It's not known how many people riding in wheelchairs are injured in vehicle accidents because little data are available.
In most of the crashes the wheelchairs were secured. However, seat belts weren't always used or fastened the right way, and in some instances, people slid from under lap belts and were injured.
"By and large, many of these injuries are preventable if the restraints had been used, or used properly," said Gina Bertocci, a professor who works in wheelchair transportation safety at the University of Louisville.
N.J.’s law includes fines
A survey of wheelchair users who ride on public and private transportation found in 2007 that one in seven never used restraints, mainly because drivers didn't take time or know how to secure their wheelchairs and lap belts, according to Easter Seals Project Action, a program that helps the disabled with transportation.
"I've seen drivers who drop off the kids and they're in a hurry so they don't take time for each chair," said Margaret Griscti, of North Brunswick, N.J., whose son, Stephen, broke his leg when his wheelchair tipped over in a vehicle.
That accident nearly 10 years ago and other crashes led to New Jersey's 2008 law, which includes fines for violators.
Acton's relatives hope Ohio lawmakers now will take another look at their state's seat belt laws.
Crash investigators were surprised, too, that seat belts aren't required for people in wheelchairs. "I guess I thought there would be something," said State Highway Patrol Lt. Craig Cvetan.
There's no guarantee restraints would have saved Acton, a 28-year-old born with spina bifida, because he died of multiple injuries. The only thing keeing him in his seat was a strap designed to help him sit up, not protect him in an accident.
His stepfather pointed out that Acton was in the back of the bus and that most of the damage was up front. A man in a wheelchair across from Acton survived even though he, too, did not have lap and shoulder belts.
The bus driver also died, and six passengers were injured. Three of the survivors had on lap belts, according to accident reports.
A patronizing approach?
Two employees on the bus told investigators that they usually attached the lap and shoulder belts for passengers in wheelchairs, but not always, and that they didn't know who secured Acton before the accident.
Administrators at the Creative Learning Workshop in Springfield, Ohio, which operated the bus, referred all questions to the company's attorney, Steve Freeze, who did not return messages seeking comment.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the decision on whether to use the safety restraints on buses and paratransit vans is left up to the wheelchair users and bus operators. The law says passengers riding on buses in wheelchairs can be told to buckle up only if everyone else aboard must wear a seat belt.
The law sets out to treat people with disabilities the same as anyone else, said Lex Frieden, a former head of the National Council on Disability who helped draft the ADA in the mid-1980s.
"If we're not going to require the general public to wear seat belts on buses, we shouldn't require people with disabilities," he said. "Clearly, one could argue we need to look after the well-being of the people using these vehicles, but that leads us to a patronizing approach."
Some operators of small buses do require all passengers to be belted, setting standards that vary by city, according to interviews with transit managers. And some transit operators, especially those that are government-funded, say it's too risky not to make everyone buckle up.
"It's a liability issue," said Robert Hiett, who oversees a rural paratransit service in Griffin, Ga., that requires seat belts for all. "If we didn't properly secure them and there's an accident, we'd get in all kinds of problems. Defending one lawsuit could put us out of business."
Larry Schneider, a research professor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, said he hopes legislation being considered in Massachusetts will become a model for other states. The proposal would require wheelchairs and users to be secured on all paratransit buses and vans and require training for caregivers.
Paula Cieplik and her 35-year-old son, Kenny, of Middleborough, Mass., pushed for the proposal after he was injured in a crash a year ago when the seat belts holding him in his wheelchair broke, throwing him out of his seat.
"The people who are most vulnerable aren't protected," she said. "It's mind-boggling."
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