Peril of the cowboys driving our buses

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Four months pregnant, loaded with bags and a young child, Sally Hall was rash enough to take the bus. For her pains, she was dragged along the road, screaming, with her head and shoulders trapped in the doors of a single-decker.

Her ordeal, which ended an afternoon shopping trip and could have finished her life, was extreme. But Ms Hall is not the only victim of careless and sometimes dangerous bus driving. In many parts of the country, to catch a bus is to be banged, jolted and thrown off balance - often by inexperienced drivers at war with the surrounding traffic.

No official figures for complaints about poor bus driving exist, but Zurich Municipal, an insurer, said annual claims against bus companies run into "millions of pounds".

Last week, passengers on a double-decker in Bristol were taken on a frightening five-mile chase when their driver, overcome with road rage, pursued another motorist who had forced him to brake.

It is little wonder that, as John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, put it, the bus is seen as a "second-rate, second-class form of transport".

Ms Hall was getting off Metroline's W7 at Crouch Hill in North London when she was trapped. She had reached back into the bus to help her son, Jamie, two, when the driver set off. "The bus wasn't so busy that the driver couldn't see me," she said. "He should have used his internal mirror to see Jamie and his external ones to see me. Bruised and sore, she went to hospital.

"I was surprised by the force of the doors. They just held my shoulders in place. I was dragged for 15 feet. I was screaming. I was terrified. The drivers don't take enough care, go too fast and can't be bothered to check if elderly and pregnant passengers are sitting."

Many factors contribute to endemic bad bus driving, but stress, anti-social hours and low pay are chief among them. The job is difficult and unpleasant, and there is a national shortage of people willing to do it. Turnover is as high as 40 per cent a year in some places.

"Each year we look for up to 20,000 new drivers," said Peter Huntington, the chief executive of Transfed, a national training organisation for bus, coach and taxi drivers. "Bus drivers don't have the status of pilots or train drivers and shiftwork isn't everyone's cup of tea."

The average wage - after a month's training for a Passenger Carrying Vehicle licence - is £14,500, compared to £38,000 for a London Tube driver. Frequently, the main attraction is the training, which allows recruits to work as lorry drivers.

Some companies try to take on older, less aggressive drivers. But low wages make this hard. "Companies have difficulty recruiting drivers of the right quality or drivers at all," said Caroline Cahm, chairman of the National Federation of Bus Users. "You can say they're not getting the right incentives but the fact remains that driving buses is a nightmare."

The point on which the bus companies and passenger groups agree is that few improvements will come without help from traffic planners. In particular, they want bus lanes properly enforced and priority for buses at traffic lights.

"People say buses are unreliable and late when the bus is often just stuck in traffic," said Mike Bartlett of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the trade association for the bus industry. "We're between a rock and a hard place until there are more bus lanes."

Mr Prescott has promised local authorities £700m over three years for "bus support measures", special lanes and traffic lights giving priority to buses. Ms Hall complained to Metroline but the company said none of its drivers had any knowledge of the incident. She is preparing a civil action.

New national codes of practice on train driver recruitment and training have been issued, said the Association of Train Operating Companies. One driver in last October's Paddington rail crash that left 31 people deadhad qualified just 13 days before, though a Health and Safety Executive interim report did not doubt his suitability. The public inquiry into the disaster opens on Wednesday.