New law on minibus seatbelts ruled out: Minister rejects plea at M40 inquest

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday ruled out compulsory fitting of seatbelts to existing minibuses after accident verdicts were returned by a jury at an inquest into the deaths of a teacher and 12 of her pupils in a crash on the M40.

Robert Key, the roads minister, insisted that many schools and voluntary organisations were putting seatbelts into their minibuses anyway and there was no need for a new law. But he said measures were being taken to improve safety, and the Government had won the agreement of the European Commission for compulsory fitting of belts on all coaches and minibuses in future.

Frank Dobson, Labour's transport spokesman, called the Government's stance 'entirely unacceptable' and said: ' What more must happen before they take children's safety seriously?'

The row erupted after Michael Coker, the Warwickshire coroner, urged the Government to review the rules. He said seatbelts should be fitted to all minibuses, and that seats should be front or rear-facing, unlike the side-mounted benches fitted to the vehicle in which 12 pupils and a teacher from Hagley Roman Catholic High School, near Bromsgrove, died last November.

It was also essential, he said, that local education authorities should issue guidelines relating to the drivers of such vehicles, paying special attention to the hours they worked. There should be provision for a second driver on long trips, and strict rules regarding vehicle maintenance.

'I propose to write to the appropriate departments concerning these matters,' Mr Coker said. 'But anyone hearing these should bear in mind the tragedy here and do something now.'

Mr Key said the coroner's letter would not be 'filed away and forgotten, and he promised that the Secretary of State for Transport would make a statement before the parliamentary recess.

During the four-day inquest in Leamington Spa, it emerged that the teacher, Eleanor Fry, 40, probably fell asleep as she drove a party of 14 pupils home after a trip to the Schools Prom in London. She had been on duty for about 16 hours.

Evidence from several witnesses described how the minibus - travelling at between 60mph and 70mph - veered from the outside lane and, without any sign of braking, crashed into a maintenance lorry, parked on the hard shoulder near junction 15. Shortly afterwards it burst into flames.

The Chief Constable of Warwickshire, Peter Joslin, echoed many of the coroner's recommendations and said he would be putting forward a number of others. But he said the Government should not rush into legislation that would deprive schoolchildren of leisure activities because of the lack of suitable vehicles.

Some of the bereaved parents said that if no laws were passed their children's deaths would have been in vain. Peter O'Dowd, who lost his daughter, Charlene, 12, said organisations responsible for transporting children must be left no choice. 'If it's not put into law, it is left for money to decide. It should definitely be put into law.'

Stephen Fitzgerald, whose 13- year-old daughter Claire died in the crash, said: 'We owe it to Claire and the others to see that lessons are learnt. We would expect the recommendations to be listened to and acted upon.'