Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will look into seat belts for buses

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will look into the feasibility of installing seat belts in its buses in the wake of a rollover accident on Oct. 26 that injured 11 people.

RFTA board of directors Chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt suggested the study at the agency’s monthly meeting Thursday, and it was endorsed by the full board.

Whitsitt said she would like riders to at least have the option of wearing seat belts. She views it as similar to giving pedestrians an option to cross streets at a crosswalk.

“We don’t have the option to strap in. Our No. 1 mission is safety,” she said.

RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said his preliminary impression is that seat belts are common on “over the road” buses that travel long distances, such as Greyhound and charters. They are less common in short-haul transit buses such as those RFTA uses, he said. Seat belts have become more common in school buses in recent years. The Aspen School District has offered seat belts on school buses since 1985. Use is optional. A parent of students in Glenwood Springs said seat belts are available on school buses in that district but rarely are used.

One of the issues RFTA must study is whether the seats on its current fleet of buses are engineered to be compatible with seat-belt use. Seats must be specially engineered to handle the force of restrained bodies getting thrust forward in an accident.

RFTA also must assess the feasibility and cost of retrofitting buses with seat belts.

“We’ll definitely look at it,” Blankenship said.

RFTA also must research legal issues. If seat belts are installed, Blakenship was uncertain whether the agency could require their use. It also must be determined whether RFTA faces liability if seat belts are offered but not used and a passenger gets injured in an accident. He noted that seat-belt use isn’t a legal requirement of bus passengers like it is for occupants of private vehicles.

“That’s the challenge of it,” Blankenship said, referring to enforcement.

“From RFTA’s perspective, at least if we offered it to passengers, we’d feel better about it,” he later added.

A RFTA bus was westbound on Highway 82 just downvalley from the Blue Lake subdivision on the evening of Oct. 26 when it came upon a slow moving tractor with lights but no slow-moving-vehicle sign, according to an accident report by the Colorado State Patrol. The bus driver swerved to miss the tractor, lost control of his rig, hit a barrier and rolled.

The State Patrol has turned over results of its preliminary investigation to the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which is assessing whether charges will be filed against either driver.

Three of the 11 passengers who were taken to hospitals suffered serious injuries, according to investigators.