Ministers 'dithering' on minibus seat-belts: Coach operators criticise delay in publishing research results

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The Independent Online
A FIERCE row erupted between coach operators and transport ministers over the increasingly controversial issue of seat-belts in coaches and minibuses, following the Sunday's minibus accident in North Yorkshire in which three people were killed.

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

Christine Milburn, of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, said: 'We have been waiting for this research for months. We have been getting answers to parliamentary questions since January saying it will be published in a few weeks' time but nothing happens.' She said her members were unable to fit belts until the results were known.

A Department of Transport spokeswoman said: 'The research has been carried out and the report is with ministers. It will be published soon.'

Five boys and the driver of the minibus were still in hospital last night following the head-on collision on Sunday involving the minibus and a coach carrying army cadets. Andrew Lyle and Richard Olsson, both aged eight, were killed, along with one of their scout leaders, Anthony Milburn. The boys were pupils at the village primary school at Glusburn, near Skipton, North Yorkshire where all 300 pupils were in mourning yesterday.

Coach operators were originally reluctant to fit belts but following a series of disasters now realise that public pressure will force them to do so and are pressing the Government to clarify the situation.

Yesterday, Roger Freeman, the Transport minister, reiterated the Government's position that the issue had to be resolved at European level: 'To make the fitting of seat-belts compulsory will require action at European level. It requires a decision by the European Union. If we brought in legislation tomorrow, coach manufacturers and operators could say 'it may be British law but it's European law that governs the construction of these vehicles'.' He emphasised that they could fit them voluntarily.

However, the coach operators dispute both Mr Freeman's main points. They say that they cannot fit belts within the present legislation and that it is up to the Government, not Europe, to draw up the rules.

John King, managing director of Wallace Arnold, which operates 200 coaches, said: 'Last year we actually ordered seat-belts for all our coaches but on legal advice we had to cancel the order. Our lawyers said that if someone was injured by the belts, we would be liable because the law doesn't say we must fit them. In common with other operators, we want to ensure that lives would be saved before installing belts. We need the right kind of belts . . .

'There are many rules which apply to British coaches and not foreign ones. For example, our weight limit is a ton less. I'm sure a way can be found to bring in rules for fitting seat-belts.'

Peter Watson, head of the Skipton-based hire company which owned the minibus, revealed that he had been about to fit belts in the vehicle.