Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wheelchair Passenger Safety on Buses

I had a rather nightmarish experience on an inter-city bus yesterday in regards to the improper use of tie-down straps on a wheelchair. It clearly illustrates the need for more education about the law as it pertains to the securement of occupant seats on a bus. I'll first share the law and then I'll share the story. The story will help to illustrate the logic and safety that is embedded into that law.

The highway traffic act dictates certain rules about how occupant seats must be fastened in a vehicle before it  can be on the road. The purpose of the tie-down straps is to secure a wheelchair in the same way.  To read this in the law, see the National Safety Code, a Federal Law governing the Safety Inspections of Vehicles.  On page 39 of this code, there is a section about seats [in a vehicle] and how no seat must be insecure.

After reading this law, and then experiencing the danger of NOT being tied down properly on a highway coach yesterday, I would say one could safely argue that it would be discriminatory to NOT affix the tie-down straps to a wheelchair properly. When the straps are attached properly, it makes the wheelchair safety equal to that of the installed seats used by every other passenger in the bus.

The waist seat belt and shoulder belt are for a different purpose, so using logic, I would  suggest that there are valid grounds to refuse to use them because the other passengers are not forced to wear them.

To further describe the experience I had yesterday, the straps were very hard to use so the driver just tied down the two front straps. He then insisted I use the shoulder belt. He said that would prevent the chair from sliding.

No consideration was given to the fact that, if the chair slid forward, that shoulder strap would tighten on my body to hold back the weight of both me and the chair. The combined weight is over 450 pounds. Depending on the speed of travel and the suddenness of the stop a human body could not withstand that amount of force without either being hurt or worse, killed.

However, wheelchair passengers can't reach the straps to do up the chair themselves, so we're at the mercy of the bus driver.

It wasn't long before the driver hit the brakes to turn onto the highway. I slid forward and to the left and was left sitting half way into the aisle. Thankfully the shoulder belt did NOT do it's job and I was not strangled or hurt.

I called out to the bus driver, and he refused to stop. He said he would fix it at the next stop, which was about 20 minutes away. I couldn't turn the chair on and back up because I was wedged on top of the tie-down strap assembly.

When we stopped he took off the shoulder belt, loosely attached one, not two, rear tie-town straps and didn't crank the coil to make the straps tight and safe. He then insisted I must wear the seat belt around my waist. He said the seat belt would prevent the chair from sliding forward.  Again, he wouldn't listen when I tried to point out that my body would be expected to withstand the weight of the chair and me the next time he hit the brakes. Now there was no safety left.

The seat belt was put on because I was left with little choice but to comply.  He said the seat belt was mandatory. This is false. By him saying that, it clearly told me that he didn't know the rules for wheelchair passengers. He was making the rules up as he went along.  I share the story here because I see this type of thing happen all the time.  People don't really know what the rules are, so they say what sounds best at the time, and often what's said is untrue.

Shortly after we were back on the road, the driver hit the brakes again, I slid forward, and the seat belt cut in to my waist.  I was able to minimize the pain to by grabbing the seat ahead of me and then turning on my wheelchair to back up.

I again reported the problem to the driver and he refused to stop.

That did it. I called the bus company from my cell phone. They called dispatch, who in turn ordered the bus to pull off the road. He didn't. Instead he used the bus loudspeaker to tell the "wheelchair passenger" that if she doesn't like the seat belt, take it off.

I took the seat belt off and ignored the stares from the other passengers. I couldn't reach the buckle so another passenger had to undo it.

I reported the actions of the bus driver's misuse of the bus loudspeaker system to management, and they said they would phone him to more explicitly instruct him to pull over and do the job right. The next thing I knew the bus driver was talking loudly on the phone to his boss and explaining that the wheelchair passenger was being ornery, refused to follow orders, and that the chair was tied down correctly. He said it was not his fault that I refuse to listen, wear the seat belt, or follow his orders.

I was shocked. The best I could do was take photos to show how one strap was not secured at all and then email them to the manager of the bus company. The manager, by this point, had given me her direct email address. I sent a few photos from my cell phone and then for good measure, and with encouragement from the manager, turned the date and time stamp on in my regular camera, snapped a few more, and emailed them to her when I got home.

The manager was great.  She kept in phone contact for most of the trip. She also listened when I begged her not to take any further action with the driver; to do it after I got off of the bus. I didn't appreciate being centred out,  humiliated, or stared at by the other passengers because of how the driver chose to respond in and blame me for the problems, to his boss.

Throughout this whole experience I learned that the buses are equipped with a  tracking device so they could substantiate immediately that the driver was refusing to obey their orders and pull over.

It's important to point out that the biggest problem has to do with the lack of practice and the lack of a thorough education to explain the significance of each of those straps for wheelchair passengers to safely ride the bus. The drivers, and often the passengers, don't realize that the chair not the person, must be secured to the floor of the bus by law. The seat belt around the waist and/or over the shoulder is meant for an entirely different purpose.

The drivers only get trained once and then for months don't see a wheelchair passenger, so I'm not surprised they have forgotten how to use the equipment.  If you couple, the lack of practice with the fact they're given a very awkward, and almost impossible-to-use tie-down system on some of the buses, it can make life miserable for the bus driver. That morning I had a similar problem with another bus driver not knowing how to use the tie-down straps.  The difference is he listened to my concerns, understood their significance, and then got help to get the job done. He was also respectful.

There was another accommodation issue that triggered the anger in the afternoon driver, and that was he forgot how to use the lift. If you ever use the lift you will see the drivers have one heck of a time figuring it out and how to do every single step in the correct order. If you miss a step and do it later, the lift won't work. It must be precise. I've almost never seen a driver get it right the first time and I travel on buses a lot.

In the case of this driver opened the big door, not the little door, fiddled around with opening the side-arms of the lift and hooking the seat belt on the lift in correctly, and then started the test lift. By this point, 20 minutes had passed. Each of those arms must be flipped up in a particular order. Otherwise the electrical circuit that's built into each piece as a safety feature, won't connect, and it will render the lift inoperable.

When he tested lift before taking me on it he found out he had opened the wrong door to bring the lift out. The big door blocked the lift from going all the way up to the top.  The choice of doors appears to be the only step that is not included in the so-called fool-proof wiring system to ensure a driver does every step right. Those safety features should either be abolished, or set to work as long as the pieces are in correctly. The order of how they open the lift shouldn't matter and I feel sorry for the drivers who get so frustrated by it.

Anyway, the driver who opened the wrong door had no choice but to take the lift apart, stow it, close the big door, open the little door, and then start all over. Naturally he forget the right order for how to open the lift pieces, and was frustrated even further by the safety features that are built into its electrical system. We ended up being over a half hour late leaving the station because of all the provincially mandated safety features in the lift.

I felt sorry for the guy, but I won't excuse him taking his anger out on me by using the bus loudspeaker system.That is simply wrong.

Oh well, there's some good that has come out of all this.

The company now sees the significance of providing more frequent training that includes fully explaining the significance, purpose, and potential danger of not using those straps correctly.

The image below shows how the one strap was clearly not attached.

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Linda Crabtree said...

I think this is an excellent example of how a person who is put in a difficult situation should handle it. Thank God for cellphones with cameras. Without those pictures you might have had to prove that you weren't developmentally delayed, a crackpot or a troublemaker which is likely what the driver wanted the dispatch people to believe. Good on you!

wheelchairdemon said...

Thank you Linda,

These tactics led to a good outcome. I got a phone call today from the director for the region where that bus driver was working.

They were most interested in learning more of the story, could clearly see from the pictures that there were some serious problems going on and, after talking to me, were very thankful for me taking the time to alert them to this serious safety issue.

In sort, it just goes to show that this sort of advocacy clearly does work!

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