Bus driver who hit bridge 'ignored sign'

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The Independent Online

The driver of a double-decker bus full of schoolchildren, which crashed into a low bridge had disobeyed a road sign and was travelling in a restricted area without a permit, council officials claimed yesterday.

More than 50 people, mostly children, were injured, some seriously, when the pedestrian bridge ripped the roof off the vehicle as it returned from a trip to a theme park.

Some of the pupils, from the Palace Fields Primary School in Runcorn, Cheshire, said they shouted desperate warnings to the driver as the bus headed towards the bridge. Ryan McGibbon, 10, said: "Everyone was shouting that he was going the wrong way, but he said no, it was a short cut."

Ryan recalled that the deputy head, Craig Hinkins, said: "Look, children, doesn't this bridge look low. Are we going to hit it?" He added: "Mr Hinkins just grabbed everyone and got them on the floor. The roof just caved in on everybody."

Thursday evening's incident, which yesterday brought calls for tougher rules on signposting bridge and vehicle heights, was being investigated by Cheshire County Council which said the vehicle, owned by Dobson's Buses from Northwich, had been on a route designed only for single-deckers providing local services, which had to be registered. The driver had "almost certainly" ignored this rule, had driven through a no-right-turn sign and did not observe a low-bridge sign, said a spokesman.

The county engineer, Peter Cocker, added: "One-off operators, tour companies and occasional users ... are banned from the route."

A spokesman for Dobson's Buses said that on 15 June another double-decker, owned by a different firm, had hit a bridge nearby in similar circumstances, and that in the last 10 years there had been 20 such incidents on the route. "Obviously there is a failing - and I would say a failure in warning signs."

The Department of Transport said that there are up to 700 "bridge-bashing" incidents a year, mostly involving lorries, at a cost of pounds 5m.

Earlier this week, in Redruth, Cornwall, 12 people were injured when a double-decker hit a railway bridge; and in 1994 three Guides and two Guide leaders died when their bus hit a bridge in Glasgow.

Currently all low bridges require warning signs but only certain vehicles over 10ft high, such as skip lorries, must have in-cab signs giving their height.

Bob Stacey, technical manager of the Road Haulage Association, said they supported moves to make such signs compulsory for all vehicles over 10ft high, including buses, displaying their "travelling height". The Government has been "dragging its feet" for two years over introducing new rules because of problems of enforcement, he said.

In the Runcorn incident the bridge displayed an 11ft 9in sign, and the bus had a notice giving its height as 13ft 8in.

Parents at the school complained that there were no signs warning that double-deckers could not use the route.

Six people, including one adult, were detained in Warrington General Hospital, among them a child with a fractured cheek and another with "serious" cuts.

Police said that the driver, a man in his 40s from Northwich, was still in shock and would be interviewed today.