Education: Safety First: No overtaking over there: The coroner at the M40 minibus crash inquest last week called for a package of safety measures. Lucy Hodges compares these with the strict code adopted in the US

Lucy Hodges
Wednesday 06 July 1994 23:02

In 1988, in Carrollton, Kentucky, 27 children died of smoke inhalation after the school bus collided with a pick-up truck driven by a drunken driver. In September, 1989, there was another disaster in Alton, Texas, when 21 children drowned after their bus rolled into a water-filled gravel pit after being hit by a truck.

These crashes led to action. America's school bus safety record is now excellent. Huge effort, and many tax dollars, have gone into drawing up federal government regulations governing the construction of school buses, into devising pupil safety programmes, emergency evacuation drills, bus driver training programmes, and so on.

New regulations were introduced after the two accidents. They specified, for example, that buses should be built with more emergency exits and that children must receive training in bus safety at least once a term. Most important, the yellow school bus, used nationwide for a staggering 21 million miles of journeys every day, is now built with the strength of a battleship.

To reduce injuries to children walking around buses - a greater problem than injuries sustained inside buses - the government required all buses to be equipped with a set of convex, wide-angle mirrors so that drivers could see better.

To cut down on injuries to children being hit by cars passing school buses that have stopped to load or unload passengers, it insisted that all buses wear signal arms. These bear the legend 'Stop', and stick out of the side of the bus when it comes to a halt.

At the same time flashing lights at the rear of the bus reinforce the message. Under the US highway code, it is an offence to overtake a school bus that has stopped to pick up or offload passengers.

Given the American concern with safety, it is surprising to find school buses not fitted with seatbelts. Drivers must wear them, but not children. The decision to reject seatbelts is based on the notion that the high, padded seats required in American school buses offer better protection against injury. They are also cheaper than belts.

Harry Whaterman, a former director of transport in a school district in Ohio, says that one problem with placing small children aged between five and six in seatbelts is how to get them out in an accident.

Not everyone agrees, however. The National Coalition for School Bus Safety is campaigning for all buses to be fitted with belts. 'Children can unbuckle the belts no matter how young and even if the bus is upside down,' Nancy Bauder, its president, says. 'There have been accidents to prove it.'

American school buses do not carry trained escorts of the kind that Busk (Belt Up School Kids) is demanding in this country. Some school districts appoint and train safety patrols to keep order on the buses. But Mr Whaterman believes the driver should be responsible for passengers' behaviour. 'If the drivers can't drive safely, they should stop,' he says.

Ron Engel, director of safety counter-measures at the Department of Transportation, dismisses the idea of trained escorts. 'It would cost dollars 1.9bn a year,' he says. Again, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety disagrees. It believes trained escorts would be useful as an aide to the bus driver. 'They don't have to be paid,' Ms Bauder says.

Minibuses of the kind involved in recent British crashes are not supposed to be used for school transport in America. Dealers are forbidden to sell vans with more than 10 seats to people intending to use them to transport schoolchildren, and the federal government advises schools against using vans to carry parties of less than 10.

Some school districts ignore the advice about vans, however. They use them for sports, field trips and to transport small groups of special school pupils. But all vans are fitted with seatbelts and the seats face the driver in rows. There was general amazement that British vans used by children are not similarly equipped.

In the final analysis, American experts believe the important thing is how well buses are built and maintained. That will determine how well they sustain a crash. Driver training is also vital. When he was working in Ohio, Mr Whaterman insisted his school-bus drivers undergo special training every year.

But perhaps most important, school buses are restricted to the 55mph speed limit that applies to all vehicles in the US.

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