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"Sara's Wish" Inspires Bus Seatbelts That Could Save Thousands of Passengers

Sundar Krishnamurty

The death of a University of Pittsburgh student during a bus accident in India more than 25 years ago has inspired the U.S. patent of a groundbreaking retrofit seatbelt for buses and motor coaches that could save many lives and serious injuries. Two co-patent holders of the seatbelt invention are Sundar Krishnamurty, the head of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, and MIE Senior Research Fellow Douglas Eddy.

Krishnamurty is also the Isenberg Distinguished Professor in the MIE department and the site-director of the Center for e-Design, while Eddy is the site co-director of the Center for e-Design.

The name of the new patent is a “Retrofit seat belt system for motor coach, with impact dampers and cable support,” and it was issued on November 16, 2021. The new design of the retrofits will allow owners of buses and motor coaches to install seat belt retrofits for about one-third to one-half of the current cost and would potentially reduce fatalities in rollover bus accidents by some 70 percent.

As Krishnamurty explained about an earlier version of the newly patented seatbelt in 2016, “This design is affordable because it is the only known way to add seat belts to existing motor coaches without replacement of all the seats. Furthermore, it will be minimally intrusive and noticeable to passengers. Thus, we can expect many bus owners to be interested in a means to improve the critical safety and comfort of their passengers.”

Krishnamurty’s quote still holds true for the more-evolved version of the seatbelt, as just patented. The patented seatbelts make it possible to install the safety devices on an estimated 30,000 motor coaches and intercity buses nationwide that currently don’t have them.

The research on the seatbelt has been financed, in part, by Charles and Anne Schewe from Sara’s Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the Schewes after their daughter was killed in an overseas bus crash more than 25 years ago. The Schewes have been working with Krishnamurty on the seatbelt concept for about 15 years. Anne Schewe is a co-inventor of the device, and Charles Schewe is an emeritus professor of marketing at the UMass Amherst Isenberg School of Management.

The market for the seat belts already exists. All new motor coaches manufactured starting in 2016 were required to have seat belts, but only about 20 percent of existing buses at that time had the safety devices, according to the 2013 Motor Coach Census.

The current patent builds on the prior work of the inventors found in the 2016 “Retrofit seatbelt system,” which was issued International Patent Number WO2015179784 (A9) and introduced a conceptual design configuration for intercity buses.

The new U.S. patent highlights improvements in the 2016 design to reduce the total bus-installation’s estimated cost from about $20,000 per bus to about $18,000 per bus.

This cost reduction in the latest version is made possible by a decrease in the overall weight of the casted aluminum structure from 37.5 pounds to 25 pounds, which thus reduces the cost of the main casted part proportionately.

The research which led to the new patent was supported by a grant from the New England University Transportation Center, as well as the previously mentioned funding from Sara’s Wish Foundation.