Campaigners renew calls to fit seat belts

Christian Wolmar reviews the safety record of coaches in the wake of yesterday's tragedy
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While at the first glance, the statistics tend to back the operators' claim that coaches are the safest form of travel, closer examination suggests that there is room for considerable improvement.

According to the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the coach industry, in 1993 coach and bus travel was about four times safer in terms of a serious injury per passenger mile than travel in a car or van - or nine times safer in terms of fatalities.

This is not so impressive, however, given that buses are included in the statistics compiled by the Department of Transport. Buses have very low rates of injury-causing accidents as they mostly travel slowly in urban areas with considerable numbers of passengers. It is coaches, often travelling on motorways, that are involved in nearly all major disasters.

In a sense, the industry only has itself to blame. It led a long campaign against the fitting of seat belts, arguing that they were of dubious safety value and that having seats which absorbed impact was safer. It is only in recent years that it has shifted away from this position to advocate that all new coaches should be fitted with belts.

Yesterday's crash, in which people were thrown out of the coach, appears to illustrate yet again that seat belts could have saved lives. A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said: "Again this reinforces our call for seat belts on coaches and strengthening the roofs of coaches."

The European Commission is planning to issue legislation next year that will make seat belts mandatory. David Watson, of the CPT, estimates that only 40 per cent of coaches currently on the road could be fitted with belts because the others have structures which are too weak to withstand the forces from the belts in the event of a crash. The Government, in the face of growing public pressure, has announced that it intends to ensure that all coaches and mini-buses carrying children must be fitted with belts but so far has not given a firm date, though it is expected to be in force by the start of the next school term.

Coaches built since 1993 have been fitted with speed limiters that restrict their speed to 100kph (62mph) and from next year all coaches built after 1988 will be required to have them. Coaches are also being banned from outside lanes of motorways next year.

Mr Watson said the coach industry's record was still very good and its image was distorted by the scale of the occasional serious incident. "There have 50 fatalities in the past 10 years. While every one is regrettable, this is a very good safety record."


May 1995: 13 Royal British Legion members killed on M4.

November 1993: Nine American tourists and their driver killed in Kent.

November 1993: 12 pupils and a teacher killed in crash on M40.

October 1987: 13 killed in pile-up involving petrol tanker on M61.

October 1985: 13 hurt, 36 injured in M6 pile-up