Most of the dead were crushed as they fell through windows, prompting many safety and motoring organisations to call for the compulsory installation of seat belts in coaches.
This stimulated a fierce row between the European Commission and Robert Key, the Minister for Roads and Traffic, over his claim that Britain was powerless to act in the face of opposition from other member states.
The coach, owned by Travellers Coach Company, based in Hounslow, west London, was carrying 44 tourists - 42 American and two Canadian - and a British driver and guide. Eight women and two men, including the driver, were among the dead. The guide was one of 10 seriously hurt people taken to Kent and Canterbury Hospital, in Canterbury. In all, 24 were kept in overnight but none is critical. Most suffered broken bones or glass cuts.
Dr Susan Brooks, the accident and emergency consultant who treated many of the injured at the scene, said: 'It's very unusual there were so many dead in an accident of this kind. I suspect that those killed were killed almost immediately.' Among the dead were two sisters whose surviving sister, Dr Brooks said, had emerged from the wreckage knowing they had been killed. The consultant added fuel to the seat-belt debate, saying: 'Those crushed underneath were obviously made worse by people falling on top of them.'
Mr Key backed calls for seat-belt laws but claimed that, as only three other members of the European Union supported the measure, legislation could not be successfully introduced. In radio and television interviews, he argued that without European Commission backing, Britain could not enforce the legislation on coaches built outside the country, or on foreign-based coaches.
That was fiercely contradicted in a statement to Channel Four News by Robert Coleman, head of the Commission's transport directorate. He said: 'Current Community law in no way prevents the UK from legislation for compulsory fitting of seat belts to buses and coaches registered in the UK. It could also legislate for compulsory wearing of seat belts fitted to any vehicle circulating in the UK.'
The Commission has long supported implementation of belts, rejected by ministers of the member states. The bus and coach industry is reluctant to see legislation, arguing that it would be expensive and would not necessarily make passengers safer.
Alan Gurley, technical director of the Bus and Coach Council, which represents most operators, said: 'Coaches are not like cars. Their floors are much less strong and would need to be strengthened.'
He added that it was also difficult to find where to anchor the upper part of three-point belts. The council had urged its members to consider fitting belts, but has refused to endorse them.
PARIS - At least 12 people were burnt to death and 28 injured in a motorway crash involving an oil tanker and 40 vehicles near Bordeaux yesterday evening, writes Julian Nundy. First reports said a British lorry carrying methanol stopped because a burning axle was emitting dense black smoke. A following tanker then veered across the central reservation.
Legislation unlikely, page 3
Flames engulf scene, page 12
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