Three coach crashes in France and Spain early yesterday, resulting in 29 deaths, led to renewed calls for the mandatory fitting of seat belts in coaches.
Coming at the start of the holiday season, the crashes again raised the issue of the safety of this form of travel, particularly as they follow two serious British coach accidents in the past three months in which 21 people were killed.
In the worst of yesterday's crashes, 22 people were killed and 32 injured on the A9 autoroute near Avignon, southern France, when a coach carrying Spanish students from Amsterdam to Barcelona swerved and toppled over after clipping the wing of a lorry. Four people were killed in the other French accident, also early yesterday, when a lorry struck a coach carrying tourists from Slovakia when it tried to turn on a motorway access road in eastern France.
The Spanish accident took place on the main highway linking Barcelona with Tarragona, in the north-east. Three people were killed and 22 injured, including a British couple who were taken to hospital.
The European Commission has been criticised for not bringing forward legislation to ensure that all coaches are fitted with seat belts but yesterday the EU Transport Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, said that the new law making them mandatory should be in force by October 1996. However, as many older coaches cannot be fitted with belts and the law will not be retrospective, many people in coaches will be travelling without belts well into the next decade.
"All the necessary steps should be completed by the end of the year, enabling the laws to be put into effect in all EU member states by October 1996," Mr Kinnock said. This is the first time a clear date has been given for the move.
The accident on the A9 in France, in which many of the dead were thrown from the coach by the force of the impact, appeared to have been caused by the driver dozing off, according to police sources. Salvador Recher Sanchez, who was driving the Scania two-tier coach but escaped unhurt, was being held for questioning.
Still in a state of shock, Mr Sanchez told reporters a lorry had caused the coach to hit the central motorway barrier as he was overtaking. Police said, however, that the driver appeared to have been jolted awake when his wing mirror clipped a French lorry, causing him to grab the wheel and wrench the coach into a fatal swerve. The driver of the French-registered lorry was also questioned, but he was absolved of any responsibility.
A witness said the coach suddenly veered to the left and turned over before skidding for 150 yards.
British tour operators stressed that drivers in Europe had to follow the same rules as in Britain. They are restricted to nine hours a day, with a maximum of 10 hours twice a week and a cumulative total of 90 hours a fortnight. They must have a break after four and a half hours.
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