The M40 Crash: Britain 'blocked EU moves to tighten driving test rules': Seat belts and motorway services face scrutiny in wake of accident. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
THE M40 disaster has led to accusations from Labour that Britain had opposed European legislation to improve safety on minibuses by making drivers take a second test, and complaints about the lack of service areas on the M40.

Calls for the mandatory fitting of seat belts in buses and coaches made following last week's M2 disaster were also vigorously renewed.

In a letter to John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, Frank Dobson, his Labour opposite number, said that Britain had opposed an EU suggestion to make all minibus drivers take a second test. As a result of Britain's opposition, the EU directive, which will come into force on 1 July 1996, will not require a second test for drivers using minibuses for social purposes on a non-commercial basis: schools, voluntary organisations and charities will be exempt.

The campaign for seat belts is growing. Belt Up School Kids, a group started in Wales in February, has spawned 18 local groups. Dawn Davies, BUSK's secretary, said: 'Since the summer - before yesterday's tragedy - there had already been three serious accidents involving schoolchildren. Ensuring they sit one per seat with a proper three- point belt would save injuries and lives.'

Despite the two serious crashes, the Bus and Coach Council, which represents bus operators, is opposed to seat belt legislation unless research is carried out which shows conclusively that it would save lives. David Watson, its spokesman, said: 'A lot of research indicates that lap belts would increase casualties as the head would be thrown forward much faster than if the person were not wearing any belt.'

He pointed out that vehicles owned by commercial operators of buses faced a test involving 740 possible sources of failure, compared with just 65 for non-commercially operated minibuses.

The lack of service stations on the M40 - which starts on the outskirts of London and goes to Birmingham - was also highlighted as a possible cause of the disaster. Simon Woodings, AA spokesman for the Midlands, said: 'Even before the motorway was opened two years ago, we warned that more facilities were needed. Along with the M1, the M40 is the main artery linking the North and South. The volume of traffic has trebled since it opened, yet there are no facilities for drivers to follow the sensible advice of stopping regularly to rest.

'It is possible to drive 125 to 150 miles on the M40 and linking motorways without finding a service station. Periods of driving over two hours can result in motorway driving syndrome, a state where motorists become comfortable in their surroundings and simply drift off.'