Maple Ridge school bus operator says seatbelts a good discussion

People passing when lights flashing of greater concern

Transport Canada is looking at whether children should be wearing seatbelts on school buses.

The company that brings Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows children to school said efforts at improving safety might be better spent educating the public about not passing school buses as children get off at their stops.

Last month, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said his department will investigate whether new regulations are needed. Transport Canada has made seatbelts mandatory on medium and large highway buses as of September 2020, as a response to the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, but that change did not apply to school buses.

“I have instructed my department to take an in-depth look at the question of seatbelts in buses, a fresh look based on all of the evidence that has been collected since all the way back to 1984, and I look forward to their findings,” Garneau said in the House of Commons.

Transport Canada has taken the position that seatbelts do not improve passenger safety on school buses, citing the findings of a 1984 study of bus crashes. However, there have been recent media reports that Transport Canada did a 2010 study which showed seatbelts could reduce injuries. The results of that study were never reported.

Murray Nicholl is the managing director of Thirdwave Bus Services which contracts bus services to School District 42. The company, headquartered in Richmond, is in its first year of bussing for the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows district, and also operates in Surrey, Coquitlam, Abbotsford and other school districts.

“This is something that, as long as I’ve been in the industry, it’s been talked about,” he said of the seatbelt issue. “If the government makes it law, the buses will all have to have them.”

Nicholl noted that there are lap belts on all four of its small buses, used for special needs passengers, in District 42. None of its seven large buses have them.

Some buses could be retrofitted to add lap belts, but most are not designed to take both lap and shoulder belts, and it is not a simple fix, he said.

It would play havoc with the three-and-two seating arrangement on buses, which generally says seats are designed to accomodate three children in Grade 5 or lower, but should seat just two children aged Grade 6 and up.

Nicholl expects that if the government makes a change, it would likely be done in a way that “grandfathered” some of the old buses, but required belts on all new buses.

It will add expense – an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 per new bus, or a ten per cent premium, he said.

He said buses may be retrofitted to add lap belts at a cost of approximately $4,000 per bus, but this is not possible with all bus designs, he said.

Nicholl noted that when the 1984 study was done, it considered only lap belts, and not lap-and-shoulder belts, or three-point seatbelts.

“It’s good to start the discussion,” he said, and noted the public needs to be sure the government is considering its 2010 accident study’s findings.

However, he noted it is impossible to built a bus where occupants are 100 per cent safe, the number of children killed in school bus accidents has been “miniscule,” and they are more in danger when they get off the bus at the side of the road.

“They would be better off educating the public about not passing the bus when its lights are flashing,” he said. “They always get hurt outside the bus.”

Although they don’t have seatbelts, Nicholl said at lot of accident testing has been done on buses, and improvements in design keep passengers safe.

“They are built really solid, and they do really well in an impact.”

Transport Canada has a study that looked at school bus collisions over a 10-year period from 1995 to 2004. There 25,521 accidents, 3,427 injuries to school bus passengers, 980 injuries to school bus drivers and five deaths of school bus passengers.

“To give some perspective, among young people 18 years of age and under involved in collisions involving automobiles, light trucks and vans, 3,554 fatalities occurred over the 10-year period,” it said.

It notes that over the same time period there were improvements to buses:

• the structural integrity of the roof and joints in school buses;

• the structure and design of the seats and seat backs to absorb the energy of a collision and keep the passenger contained;

• windows designed to prevent the passenger from being ejected;

• additional mirrors for greater visibility in and around the bus; and

• improved swing arms and stop warning lamps to protect children when getting on or off the bus.

According to the Canada Safety Council they are already one of the safest methods of transportation – 16 times safer than travelling in a family car per passenger/kilometre of travel.

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