Education / School transport: something must be done: Up to 1,200 children a year are killed or injured on their way to and from school. Today, the Independent launches a campaign for safety measures

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The Independent Online
A minibus carrying nine pupils and two teachers from an Oxford special school last month slipped off the road and hit a concrete block head on. All the passengers were wearing seat belts and no one was seriously hurt.

John Knox, head of Iffley Mead school, is deeply relieved that a pounds 500 fund-raising campaign by parents had provided seat belts for his school's minibus. 'They ought to be fitted in all minibuses, and it is awful and shocking that they are not,' he said.

Not all schools are so fortunate. Just two weeks earlier in Gloucestershire, six- year-old Dicky Jones died when the minibus taking him to a special school collided with a pick-up truck. Eight other pupils and two adults were injured. Although the front seats had belts, the rear ones did not.

Recent tragedies such as the M40 minibus crash last November, in which 12 pupils and a teacher were killed, and the accident in North Yorkshire two weeks ago in which two eight-year-old boys and their cub scout leader died, have raised the issue of whether all coaches and minibuses should be legally bound to have seat belts.

In February 1993, a campaign group called Belt Up School Kids (Busk) was set up. Its main aims were that every child in a school bus should have a seat and a belt, and that children's transport should be governed by a code of practice. Within 15 months, Busk has built up a network of 43 branches, and more than 100,000 people have signed a petition in support of its aims.

Pat Harris, the founder of Busk, has launched a legal action against Gwent County Council to try to make them provide seat belts on school buses. Her three children have not been hurt, but she has a collection of press cuttings on incidents nationwide that make chilling reading. Only the most horrific accidents make national headlines, and she believes children are being injured almost daily.

Official figures show that in 1992, the last year for which data is available, no children died in minibuses on the way to school and there was one coach or bus death. The cuttings, which also include accidents outside school time, show that there have been 24 deaths and 206 injuries in the past eight months. While her network of contacts ensures that she receives details of the most serious incidents, she cannot hope to log every one.

In one week in February, 11 children were injured and one died in three separate incidents. On Monday the 14th, seven Army cadets between 12 and 15 were hurt when their minibus, fitted with side-facing 'crew' seats, was in collision with a car. On the Wednesday, four children were seriously injured when a minibus crashed in Retford, Nottinghamshire. And on the Thursday, a schoolboy was killed when the coach taking him to Biggar High School, Strathclyde, crashed and he was flung through a window.

In a separate incident, a 14-year-old boy, who was knocked out when thrown against a coach windscreen, was sent a pounds 2,000 bill for replacing the broken glass. The coach company said Carl Anderson should not have been standing in the aisle when the driver had to brake suddenly; his parents argued that, if the bus had been fitted with seat belts, he would not have been standing.

Coach and minibus firms, safety experts, parents and the Government all agree that the law on the fitting and use of seat belts in minibuses and coaches leaves much to be desired. At present, belts need be fitted only to seats that do not have another seat in front of them, and it is legal to seat three children on a double seat.

In 1989, Robert Atkins, then minister for roads and traffic, said the Government aimed to ensure that all coaches and minibuses had seat belts. Despite hints that action might soon be taken, an announcement has yet to be made. It costs an average of pounds 500 to fit belts in a minibus and between pounds 1,000 and pounds 2,000 to fit them in a coach.

The Government points out that companies can fit belts voluntarily but that legislation would have to be passed at a European level. It has, however, already opted out of a European directive that requires minibus drivers carrying more than seven passengers to pass an additional test.

Transport companies say they cannot fit seat belts under existing legislation because they would be forced to pay compensation for any injury caused by the them. And they point out that the Government has already acted independently of Europe by ensuring that the weight limit on British coaches is lighter than in the rest of Europe.

Teaching organisations have joined the groups demanding a change in the law. The National Union of Teachers has asked John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, to consider making school minibus drivers undergo extra training and regular driving tests, and is seeking immediate grants to allow schools to fit seat belts to their own buses.

Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, said: 'Too many children have already been killed or injured when travelling in minibuses that do not have belts. Every child, no matter where they are sitting in these vehicles, should be protected by a seat belt.'

Safety experts say that the problem should be kept in proportion: after planes, coaches are the safest way to travel. They say that of 8,000 children injured travelling to or from school in 1992, 5,000 were pedestrians, 1,000 cyclists 1,400 travelling by car, taxi or minibus - and only 535 by bus or coach.

Dave Rogers, road safety adviser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said: 'Although people are up in arms about the dangers of school transport, the buses and coaches themselves are probably safer than cars, even without seat belts.'

Better training of drivers was the single most important change required, he said, followed by improved vehicle design. In addition to making seat belts compulsory, the Government should ban the use of side-facing bench seats that allow passengers to be thrown forwards or even out of the back doors in a crash. There should be seat belts, or at least lap belts, and seats and belts should be bolted firmly to the floor - otherwise injuries might be worse than if belts had not been fitted at all.

Mrs Harris is seeking permission to take her case against Gwent County Council to a judicial review. The council is supportive of her campaign, but believes that the law does not allow it to act otherwise.

'There are stricter regulations for the transportation of cattle to market than for children going to school,' she said.