Education Viewpoint / Safety First: A small price for the lives of our children

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Twelve school children and a teacher die in a motorway minibus crash. A six-year-old with special needs dies when a minibus overturns on the way to school. A nine-year-old is killed when his coat gets caught in a bus door and he is dragged under the wheels.

And so it goes on. Over the past five years, according to the pressure group, Belt Up School Kids (Busk), an average of one child a week has been killed while travelling on school transport - yet the Government does nothing to make their journeys safer.

It is five years since Robert Atkins, then minister for roads and traffic, said the Government aimed to ensure that all coaches and minibuses had seat belts. Yet children who have been strapped into cars since infancy are still travelling without seat belts, three to a seat meant for two. Double-decker buses rattle along country roads with a driver who is supposed not only to be watching the road but also his passengers.

A quick journey around the playground in the school minibus is the most training some teachers receive before driving children to football matches, swimming pools and umpteen other out-of-school activities. Yet these vehicles are mightily different from the average family saloon.

Small children still have to sit on sideward-facing benches like building labourers on their way to a site. Some deaths and injuries are caused simply when back doors burst open in a crash and they are thrown out.

No one is saying all deaths can be prevented, but many probably would be if seat belts were compulsory in all minibuses and coaches, and a statutory code of conduct governed school transport.

Every child should have their own seat; drivers of school minibuses should have special training; and every school transport bus should have an adult escort, not just to keep order but also to ensure the safety of children getting on and off the bus.

It is not much to ask. After all, no sane person takes the kids for a spin on the motorway in an overcrowded car without seat belts and lets them stand up or crawl all over the place. Yet, in effect, that is happening every day on school transport. Yes, it does cost money to make children safer. Humberside County Council stumped up pounds 108,000 for the hire of extra buses when it decided to stop the standard local authority practice of putting young children three to a double seat. The move came six months after a school bus crash left two dead and 50 injured.

But what is the price of a child's life? The newspaper cuttings of school transport accidents make awful reading. To begin with, there are such a lot of them: pictures of tangled metal, smashed glass, frightened children, and smiling school photographs of those destined never to grow up.

Clearly the problem is not just with school transport. Earlier this month, the inquest was held into the deaths of the 10 who were killed on the M2 when their tourist coach overturned. And less than two weeks ago, two eight-year-old cub scouts and a scout leader died when their minibus crashed into a coach carrying Army cadets on a wet country road in North Yorkshire. The company operating the minibus had planned to fit seat belts the following week.

Coach operators accuse the Government of dithering by delaying publication of research ordered last autumn into the technical and legal aspects of fitting belts in coaches and minibuses.

The Government says the issue has to be resolved at European level because EU law covers the construction of the vehicles. It says the coach operators can fit belts voluntarily. The lawyers tell the coach operators that they could face prosecution if someone was injured by a seat belt that was not compulsory.

And so it goes on. One minute the Government rejects a European directive that the drivers of all minibuses carrying more than seven passengers should pass a special driving test; next minute, it says it cannot act without Europe.

Short of boycotting school transport and raising funds to fit seat belts in the school minibus, parents can do little but cross their fingers. The fact that Busk has grown from nothing to 43 branches in 15 months shows the raw nerve that has been touched by this issue.

The Government can and should do more. If it won't take action for all coach passengers, it should at least make it compulsory for school coaches and minibuses to be fitted with seat belts and to carry an escort, and for all school transport to be governed by a strict code of practice. It should also provide the money for local authorities faced with bigger transport bills because of these basic safety measures. Whatever the cost, it is a small price to pay for a safer school transport system.

AMONG the main points in the Belt Up School Kids code of practice for bus operators and local education authorities are:

Each child should have a seat to him/herself.

All children should have seat belts, and an adult should ensure that they are wearing them before the bus moves off.

All drivers should be properly trained, familiar with the route and drop-off points, and aware of emergency procedures.

Vehicles should have a trained escort, in addition to the driver, to control children on the journey and when alighting and boarding.

All seats should be forward-facing.

School vehicles should not exceed 30mph.

All school vehicles should display signs to show they are carrying children, and flashing lights to show when they are alighting or boarding.

Other vehicles should not overtake stationary vehicles displaying these indicators.

Schools should warn children that unruly behaviour can lead to accidents causing serious injury or death. Any child who behaves badly on school transport should be dealt with sternly.

Children should be taught never to distract the driver, and always to wear seat belts.