Leading Article: Coach safety can be a selling point

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WEDNESDAY'S tragic coach crash on the M2 in Kent, in which 10 people died and 36 were injured, was widely agreed to have underlined the need to make the provision of seat belts mandatory in coaches. Yet that new awareness has aroused little but dismal buck- passing and excuses.

Robert Key, the Minister for Roads and Traffic, blamed the European Union for the Government's failure to introduce the necessary legislation. The European Commission said there was nothing to stop Britain acting unilaterally. Coach manufacturers produced a string of reasons why it would be undesirable, expensive and even dangerous to furnish their products with seat belts.

Only the British Safety Council and the Consumers' Association spoke for the public in insisting that solutions could be found for the engineering problems, urging that Britain should invoke a Treaty of Rome clause to protect health and human life.

Yesterday the commission conceded that Mr Key had, after all, been right. A spokesman admitted that because there are already Union-wide 'type approval' standards for buses and coaches, making seat belts compulsory in two exposed areas at the front and back, the UK government could not prevent the free circulation of vehicles (wherever registered or manufactured within the EU) that met Union-level rules. Had these not existed, the UK would have been free to legislate.

As it stressed last night, the commission favours making seat belts obligatory. Had it been granted delegated powers in this field, Mr Key would have had the legislation he says he has been seeking.

In all this there has been no awareness that Britain might take the lead in improving safety, both diplomatically and commercially. If the Department of Transport has been canvassing Britain's EU partners for coach seat belts, it has done so neither conspicuously nor effectively: only Germany and Denmark share its views.

As for the coach and bus industry, it sees problems, not opportunities. Yet safety in coaches could become as big a selling point as it is now with cars. The industry should move swiftly to solve the engineering difficulties, which may indeed be considerable. If Government legislation, however vulnerable to challenge, would encourage that process, it should be put in hand forthwith. Given the right climate, public demand for safety could be a powerful force for change.