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The seat belts you probably didn’t even know you had

Emergency personnel respond to the scene of a fatal accident in Blythe, Calif., in 2014. A tractor-trailer spilled a load of steel pipes onto a highway, triggering a bus crash that killed four people and seriously injured several others on the main road linking Southern California and Arizona, authorities said.Brian Skoloff

Overall, buses are an incredibly safe way to travel — far, far safer than driving.

But when accidents do happen, they can be catastrophic — especially because until recently, few buses had seat belts.

In 1996, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Charles Schewe’s daughter, Sara, died in a bus accident in India that also killed six others. The following year Schewe and his wife, Anne, started a foundation, Sara’s Wish, to advocate for bus safety.

”We began with the premise that if she had a seat belt she would be with us today,” he said. “We have focused since then on seat belt safety.”


There has been progress: Since 2016 new buses in the United States have been required to have seat belts, and buses without them are gradually being phased out. (The rule doesn’t apply to city transit buses or school buses.) But that’s only half the battle. I talked with the Schewes over Zoom recently about the next challenge: publicizing the seat belts that many riders of intercity buses — like Greyhound that often travel at highway speed — don’t know are available to them and convincing riders to wear them.

The foundation recently paid for posters for display at South Station’s bus terminal, a simple, low-tech approach that it says can be effective. It’s also hoping bus manufacturers will add notices to the backs of seats reminding passengers that they have a seat belt.

Charles Schewe

“We’re now at the stage where we’re trying to let people know of the impact,” Charles Schewe said. “The story needs to be told and people need to think about putting on a seat belt.”

Seat belts are especially effective in rollover crashes. On average, there are about two dozen motorcoach fatalities every year, according to federal regulators, and rollovers account for about half of them. California actually mandates seat belt usage on commercial buses, enforced with fines.


I’d be skeptical of a legal requirement — who is going to enforce a seat belt law on buses? But doing more to raise awareness would be a good move for bus companies and the operators of bus terminals. After all, the cost is minimal — the Schewes said their posters cost a few hundred dollars — and the potential benefit is enormous.

This is an excerpt from Are we there yet?, a Globe Opinion newsletter about the future of transportation in the region. Sign up to get it in your inbox a day early.

Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at alan.wirzbicki@globe.com.