An Ulsterwoman now living in a remote rural area of Gwent, Mrs Harris has been at loggerheads with the local council about the school bus service for some time. Now she has found herself campaigning not just on behalf of local children, including her own, but for the safety of schoolchildren nationally.
Until recently, Myfanwy and Patrick were taken to school in an old 14-seater minibus with no seat belts. Although the back doors never flew open in the middle of the journey - a disconcerting habit of the vehicle formerly used on the run - the children often had to sit three to two seats. One of the drivers allowed the children to operate the doors themselves instead of getting out and doing it for them.
Her initial attempts to raise the issue of safety with the council got nowhere. 'They just made me feel the worst kind of fussing mum,' she said. Instead of giving up, Mrs Harris contacted her MP, Roger Evans, and began mobilising other parents in the area. Belt Up School Kids (Busk) was formed in February this year.
Recent accidents have fuelled parental fears and reopened the debate about the fitting of seat belts in coaches and minibuses. As a result, Busk now has 22 branches throughout the UK, with 10 more in the pipeline. 'Every time there is an accident my phone is red hot,' Mrs Harris says. 'For every parent who calls to join us I'm sure there are others who have the number but just haven't got round to it. But we shouldn't wait until the next accident happens, we must act now.'
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent- Teachers Associations, confirms that parental concern has risen. 'I get letters every week from parents who are desperately concerned about the whole issue,' she says. 'It involves not just the regular journeys to and from school, but children being taken to football matches or other sports fixtures and on school trips.'
Mrs Morrissey is a member of the working party set up by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to investigate the safety of school journeys. It recommended the fitting of retractable seat belts in school buses and coaches two years ago. Little has changed since then, she says.
'The trouble is that making seat belts compulsory on coaches and minibuses involves expense - and the coach lobby is very powerful. Although the schools do care about safety they are concerned that too many rules and regulations might curtail the activities they can offer the children, and the official government line is that they are waiting for an EC directive while pointing out, in the meantime, that the record on school bus and coach safety is really very good. Statistically that may be true. But why do we have to wait for fatal and serious accidents to happen before action is taken?'
In fact, David Rogers, Rospa's road safety adviser, points out that statistics are not always what they seem. In 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available, 446 children were injured while on buses and coaches. 'However, no one knows how many were injured on minibuses,' he says, 'since these figures are still lumped in with cars.'
He has no doubt that fitting seat belts would reduce the casualties. 'Seat belts dramatically reduce injuries in the event of a crash and increase the chance of survival by a factor of around three,' he says.
'It seems ludicrous that children are legally obliged to wear seat belts in cars and yet have no protection whatsoever during school journeys - trips they make hundreds of times each year.'
Pat Harris could not agree more. Now Busk and the Consumers' Association are to ask parents to consider boycotting the use of commercial coaches for school trips unless they are fitted with seat belts. 'We know the operators are under no legal obligation to fit seat belts,' says Mrs Harris, 'but we feel there is a moral obligation there.'
Although the introduction of seat belts is top of their agenda, Busk parents are also concerned about other safety aspects. 'Most local education authorities place child safety very low down on their list of priorities,' she says. 'They say, for example, that it is perfectly all right to put three children under the age of 14 on two seats.
'But the Department of Transport allows this only as a concession. We feel that many operators who do this are contravening the Road Traffic Act by putting passengers in danger and are therefore liable to prosecution. We know that children have to stand in the gangways. Their bags block the aisles and exits - that's illegal, too. We have drawn up a code of safety which covers all these issues and we want parents to join us in lobbying for change.'
Busk is now collecting signatures for a parliamentary petition to be presented in early April, calling for seat belts to be made compulsory in all vehicles used to transport schoolchildren. Last Saturday Mrs Harris and her children went busking in Abergavenny's town centre and collected more than 1,600 names in an afternoon.
Mr Evans has tabled a Commons early day motion pressing for compulsory seat belts in all coaches and minibuses. Mrs Harris says: 'We need parents to get their MPs to support him. We need parents to add their names to the thousands we already have on the petition - and we want them to turn out when we present it at the House of Commons so that the Government can't ignore it.
'Since we started Busk I've been horrified at some of the tales I've heard. Last year a girl fell through the open door of a coach taking her on a day trip with 30 other children. She suffered severe head injuries. I had a call from a woman whose daughter was killed when the back doors of a minibus opened and she fell into the path of oncoming traffic.
'The Government could pass domestic legislation to protect schoolchildren, they don't have to wait for the EC, it makes me so angry. Last night I was talking on the phone to a mother coming up to the anniversary of her child's death. There was nothing I could say to her.
'I just wish some of the politicians could listen to what I have to listen to. How many more children have to die or be injured before something is done?'
Busk can be contacted at Bethwyn Cadwen, Pen-y-cae-mawr, near Usk, Gwent NP5 1NA (0291 672488).
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