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TRANSPORTATION–Majestic Cos. Testing New Child Restraint for School Buses

OCEANSIDE , More than 24 million U.S. students ride school buses every day. At any given time, only a handful are wearing seat belts.

A Rancho Cucamonga division of San Diego-based Majestic Cos. Ltd. says it has a better device for school bus safety, and is working with the Oceanside school district and others in Southern California to prove the concept.

The division, Majestic Transportation Products Ltd., has developed the SafeTBar system, a restraint bar that doesn’t require a student to buckle up to benefit from it.

To avoid using it, a student would have to constantly hold up the padded metal bar, which otherwise stays down by its own weight.

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The potential nationwide market is huge. If all buses in the United States were retrofitted with the system, revenue could approach $2.5 billion, said Steve Rosenthal, president of Majestic Transportation.

Approximately 450,000 school buses are in daily use, and a full installation of the SafeTBar system costs $5,000 to $6,000 per bus, he said. Four states , New York, New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana , currently require seat belts on school buses. But they don’t have laws requiring the belts to be worn, Rosenthal said.

“We are introducing a new concept as well as a new product,” he said. “Our device eliminates the non-use factor.”

Twenty-six states have enacted laws requiring seat belts on future buses. In California, seat belts will be required on school buses purchased after Jan. 1, 2002, Rosenthal said.

Passive Restraint

The SafeTBar always rests down near the student’s lap, similar to safety bars on some theme park rides.

Although students may easily lift the bar to get in and out of a seat, an inertia lock freezes the bar in response to quick movements, similar to the way seat belts lock up, said Gerard Lehman, vice president of sales and marketing.

Majestic has launched pilot programs in two school districts. The safety bars are installed in one bus operated by Oceanside Unified School District. The system will be installed soon in two buses operated by Hemet Unified School District.

“We expect to have the system in by Easter break,” said Raul Gracia, fleet maintenance supervisor for the Hemet district. “We will run a test for about a year and see how the students react, and if there are any difficulties.”

Gracia went to Oceanside and observed the SafeTBar system in operation there.

“High school students didn’t care for it, but it kept them in their seats,” he said. “And drivers had to hold book bags for smaller elementary students while they got in. However, it seemed to work well. Compared to seat belts, the bar looks like the way to go.”

The company also has proposals out to several other school districts, including districts in Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario and Moreno Valley, as well as in Anaheim and San Juan Capistrano.

Cold-Calling

Majestic, which has been cold-calling on school district staff members, soon plans to market the safety bar concept to parent-teacher associations to boost awareness of the system, Lehman said. The SafeTBar, on which a patent is pending, is designed to improve on the seat belt and another bus safety concept called “compartmentalization,” Lehman said.

In compartmentalization, bus seats are made tall and slightly flexible so that, in case of an accident, they absorb the impact of students being flung against them. Each student is expected to be somewhat safe within the seat compartment, he said.

However, there are flaws in the compartment concept, said Adrian Corbett, Majestic’s vice president of design and engineering, and the designer of the SafeTBar.

“In crashes, there are usually two or three impacts and the kids end up outside the compartments,” Corbett said.

“We developed a restraint that is passive in the sense that the student doesn’t have to do anything to make it work, and one that is maintenance-free.”

Karco Engineering in Adelanto tested the SafeTBar system in simulated crash impacts in March 1999, he said.

Benson is a reporter for the Riverside County Business Press.

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