New move over school bus seatbelts: MacGregor seeks permission from Europe to make fitting compulsory in specialist vehicles. Simon Midgley reports

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WITHIN a year it could be compulsory for all minibuses and coaches used for transporting children in the United Kingdom to have seatbelts fitted throughout the vehicle.

Yesterday, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, said that he thought he had found a way of cutting through existing European Union legislation which only insists that belts should be fitted to front and exposed seats.

He is asking the European Commission to permit Britain to require the compulsory fitting of seatbelts in coaches and minibuses used for transporting children ahead of more wide-ranging EU legislation, currently being drawn up, requiring all new minibuses and coaches to be fitted with seatbelts.

The decision follows a number of coach and minibus accidents, the worst of which happened in November when 12 pupils and a teacher were killed in a minibus crash on the M40.

Under present European legislation governing vehicle standards, member countries are not required to do more than insist on seatbelts on front-facing and exposed seats and if Britain were unilaterally to insist on seatbelts on all seats this might be considered an infringement of the community's rules governing free trade.

However, Mr MacGregor says that under article 75 it is possible for the commission to allow Britain to introduce new seatbelt requirements for minority users such as schoolchildren.

New regulations could be introduced under secondary legislation in the next parliamentary session after public consultation in the autumn.

Such new rules would apply both to new and old coaches and minibuses and could lead to some vehicles being scrapped if it proved impossible to adapt them.

Mr MacGregor's initiative follows the publication yesterday of a detailed Department of Transport review of the safety and cost implications of introducing belts in coaches and minibuses.

The EU is considering legislation requiring all new minibuses and coaches to be fitted with seatbelts throughout, but this is unlikely to come in before 1996.

The Department of Transport is also looking at further EU proposals for more stringent requirements on competence and health tests for minibus drivers and whether drivers in the voluntary sector should continue to be exempted from such standards.

Under EU proposals from July 1996, new drivers who pass their car driving test would no longer have an automatic entitlement to drive a minibus without taking an additional test.

The issue of seatbelts in school minibuses has become an increasingly dominant one in parent-teacher associations over the last couple of years.

School trips have mushroomed during the 1990s with the introduction of the national curriculum which encourages schools to take pupils on what are, in effect, off-premises lessons.

The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations said yesterday that all schools and youth groups should be given government vouchers to have minibuses fitted with seatbelts as soon as possible.