COACH operators warned yesterday that forcing them to fit seat belts before research has been carried out on their design could increase the number of casualties.
The operators are furious that last week, following the latest in a series of fatal crashes involving coaches and minibuses, Robert Key, the Minister for Roads, suggested that they should fit belts on a 'voluntary' basis, even though there was no legislation requiring them to do so.
There has also been increasing pressure on operators from many local authorities which are specifying in contracts for school or social services transport that belts must be fitted.
Veronica Palmer, director- general of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents 1,300 coach operators, said yesterday: 'Coach operators hoping for guidance on seat belts from the Government are still waiting. Many of our members are prepared to fit belts but we are advising them not to do so until we get clear specification and performance standards from the Government.'
She argued that Mr Key's statement showed he misunderstood the existing concept of coach safety.
At a news briefing yesterday, she explained that coach seats were currently designed to crumple on impact from the passenger sitting behind in an accident. Fitting a lap belt would result in the passenger's head, rather than body, hitting the seat in front, which could increase the risk of serious injury.
The coach operators also say government claims that the issue has to be decided by the European Commission were disingenuous.
In response, Mr Key said the commission's proposal for compulsory seat belts in minibuses and coaches envisaged that detailed technical standards should be ready by the end of this year. But these standards were intended for new vehicles only; the commission had no plans for existing vehicles.
A man and a woman died and 10 people were injured yesterday when a bus hit a broken-down 30-ton lorry.
The single-decker bus, travelling from Glasgow to Stirling, ran into the back of the stationary lorry, which was loaded with sand. Two of the injured passengers were detained in hospital.
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