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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tragedy leads to invention of portable seat belts

By Adam Gorlick
Associated Press

University of Massachusetts engineering professor Sundar Krishnamurty, left, demonstrates, along with student Josh Doolittle, a student-designed portable seat belt. A young woman's death led to its creation.

NANCY PALMIERI | Associated Press

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AMHERST, Mass. Sara Schewe's trip around the world during her junior year in college was supposed to be the experience of a lifetime: a chance to broaden her education and interact with different cultures.

Instead, it ended in tragedy. A bus taking the 20-year-old Georgetown University student along one of India's oldest and most dangerous roads rolled off the road and crashed, killing Schewe and six other passengers.

During the decade since their daughter's death in 1996, Charles and Anne Schewe of Amherst have tried to prevent similar fatalities. They started Sara's Wish Foundation in 1997 and pushed for overseas travel programs to pay more attention to safety risks for American students in foreign countries.

Now, their advocacy is helping produce a practical device: the portable seat belt.

"If Sara had a seat belt on, she would've lived," Anne Schewe said. "I really believe that."

But the bus she was on like school buses in America and tour buses around the world was not equipped with seat belts. She died from head injuries inflicted when the bus rolled off the Grand Trunk Road, a 120-mile stretch from Delhi to Agra that would have taken about seven hours to travel.

The concept of a packable restraint that could strap travelers into any bus seat was Anne Schewe's idea. The Schewes contacted engineering professor Sundar Krishnamurty at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where Charles Schewe is a business professor, and he invited the Schewes to tell his sophomore design class about Sara and the accident that killed her. The students then set out to create something that might have saved her.

The class divided into seven teams, each producing a different model with whatever materials they could pull from scrap heaps or buy with their allotted $100 budgets. A panel of judges, including the Schewes, selected the design to be used for a prototype that will be improved upon by other engineering students.

Josh Doolittle, a 23-year-old junior from Westford, Mass., who was on the winning design team, said the assignment was "a great project to work on because it could really make a difference in society.

"A lot of people aren't thinking about road safety when they travel," he said. "But this is something that could make them aware and help prevent deaths."

Worldwide, about 1.2 million people die in automobile-related accidents each year, said Rochelle Sobel, president of the Potomac, Md.-based Association for Safe International Road Travel. She said there are no statistics kept on how many of those casualties are American or how many are students traveling abroad.

Sobel said poorly built roads in developing countries aren't designed to handle increasing amounts of traffic. "Big buses with no seat belts are a huge cause of deaths," she said.

"Portable seat belts would be an incredibly positive thing," she said. "They would give travelers added protection."

The contraption that Doolittle's team created will fit on any one of three bus seat models widely used around the globe.

The restraint looks like a combination of a standard seat belt, a harness and a child car seat. It uses retractable straps that stretch over a passenger's shoulders, wrap around the back and bottom of a bus seat, then come up between a passenger's legs. A lap belt gives some added security.

The straps are all stitched into a nylon carrying case, making it easily packable and portable. Once future models are designed with lighter materials, the current five-pound prototype should weigh just under two pounds.

When the final details are worked out, UMass will help Doolittle's team apply for a patent. Charles Schewe is planning to design one of his marketing classes around getting the seat belt sold. He hopes some of the engineering students will take that class so they could see their design turn into a business plan.

"The benefits and potential for this could be huge," Charles Schewe said. "Parents are always thinking about their kids' safety when they travel. If we could do something to save some lives, that would be such a legacy for Sara."

Nancy Dunnan, publisher of the TravelSmart Newsletter, which sells a variety of travel products to its readers, said she would offer the seatbelts to her readers as soon as they are on the market.

"We believe they are one way to increase everyone's safety level when traveling, on a regular bus, on a shuttle bus, sightseeing van or a safari transport," she said. "Packing a portable safety belt is almost as important as packing your meds and certainly as important as carrying bottled water."