Education / Safety First: On the right road to safer children's transport

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The Independent Online
Nine weeks ago on this page the Independent launched a campaign to improve the safety of school transport. Yesterday the paper reported a major step forward - the Government opened the door to the fitting of seat belts in all minibuses and coaches used for transporting children.

This is what parents throughout the country have been asking for in increasing numbers for years. The insanity of belting children into cars from infancy but making an exception once they start school appeared lost on no one but the Government.

Ministers have cited problems with Europe in enforcing a unilateral seat-belt rule on all seats in minibuses and coaches in advance of European legislation planned for 1996.

Last November's M40 minibus crash in which 12 children and their teacher died should have got the Government's lawyers working overtime to find a way to cut through the legislation. But it has taken the Department of Transport until now to establish that by using article 75 of current European legislation it should be possible, within a year, to enforce the provision of seat belts on children's transport.

John MacGregor, the Transport Secretary until yesterday, must have known that his days were numbered at the department when he pushed the announcement through on Tuesday - and three cheers to him for doing it. The incoming Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, should now find the money to ensure schools can comply with the law. Because, of course, schools do not send children out in minibuses and coaches without seat belts for any other reason than money.

It costs money to fit seat belts in a school minibus - at least pounds 500. It costs more money to hire coaches and minibuses with seat belts for school trips than it does to hire vehicles without them. And the number of school trips has mushroomed in the Nineties, because of national curriculum requirements. Most schools are strapped for cash and many do not have wealthy parents to bail them out via the parent teacher association coffers. Without money, school educational trips might be the casualty.

The announcement, though very welcome, still does nothing for the hundreds of thousands of children who ride to school each day without seat belts on public service buses chartered by local education authorities. It does not prevent them being put three to a seat meant for two to save money. It does not put adult escorts on buses to keep the children orderly and therefore safer.

But it does put us on the right road to the kind of transport system our children deserve. It means that parents at last will be able to wave their children off on a school trip with their fingers not so tightly crossed. It is a marvellous valedictory for Mr MacGregor.

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