Researchers take a stand for safer bus rides

Researchers take a stand for safer bus rides

This article highlights CHHM trainee Thiago Sarraf's research on how to maintain your balance while standing on a bus or Skytrain. The research is applicable to a wider age range than our usual studies, but a major focus is on enhancing mobility in older adults, by encouraging safe options for public transportation.

Transit riders’ rush-hour angst – squeezing onto a standing-room-only bus, fighting the urge to topple over with every start and stop – could soon be a worry of the past, a group of researchers say.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University’s Injury Prevention and Mobility Laboratory have discovered scientific evidence that suggests that standing subway and bus riders, to avoid falling, should position themselves sideways to the vehicle’s line of movement with a shoulder-wide stance and holding a handrail at shoulder height.

“At first glance, it makes sense that this is the most efficient and effective way to ride the bus,” Stephen Robinovitch, director of the SFU lab said of preliminary evidence from the year-long study.

The research follows several studies from around the world that say more than 50 per cent of non-collision injuries in bus and subway passengers happen to people who are standing.

In Vancouver last year, the region’s transit authority, TransLink, reported an increase in passenger injuries. Dr. Robinovitch said the potential for injury is a “major public health concern” given the increasing role of public transit in cities across Canada.

The new study looks at the ergonomic designs of buses and subways – including handrail locations – and their impact on passengers’ balance.

“People fall everywhere, especially on buses,” Dr. Robinovitch said. “And for seniors, in particular, we want to understand why people fall on the bus and how to stop this from happening.”

The team of biomedical engineering researchers began their study by measuring the start and stop accelerations of buses and SkyTrains – Vancouver’s rapid transit system. The researchers also recorded study participants’ body movements using high-tech sensor technology as the vehicles started and stopped.

The team then built an experimental machine to simulate transit vehicles’ start and stop movements. Study participants rode the device, a computer-operated wooden platform on a sliding track, to test several variations of acceleration speed, body stance and handrail locations.

“It’s allowed us to start thinking about how people maintain balance while standing on a moving vehicle,” said Thiago Serrif, a master’s student and primary researcher on the project. “We want to be able to tell people the best way to stand on a bus or a way to avoid falling.”

With evidence that standing passengers need shoulder-height handrails – rather than overhead railings or handles – to avoid falling, Mr. Serrif acknowledged that most buses across the country are not designed to allow people to stand in the optimal position.

“We really have to talk about ergonomic changes in buses,” he said.

Dr. Robinovitch said he hopes that the team’s research will contribute to safer designs of buses and subways. He also said that, since injuries to seniors in falls cost the country about $3-billion a year, no time should be wasted in providing safer vehicles.

“We want to promote mobility in older adults,” he said.