Belts for school buses within a decade, report recommends

School buses in rural and regional NSW should be fitted with seatbelts within 10 years, an independent safety committee has found.

The seatbelts should be installed on all buses that travel on non-urban roads at a cost of up to $55 million a year, the committee urged in a report handed to the NSW Government this morning. It has also called for the common practice of students standing or sitting in the aisle of buses travelling on unsealed roads or at high speeds to be banned by the start of the 2013 school year.

The two proposed reforms are among 33 others the committee – formed by the NSW Government last year  – says are essential to reduce the risk of students being killed or injured on their way to or from school.

But the government today stopped short of embracing the committee’s 93-page report, instead pledging to “consider” its findings and recommendations.

NSW and Victoria are the only states in Australia yet to commit to the widespread roll-out of seatbelts on school buses.

In a statement, the committee chair, Carolyn Walsh, said there were few things more valuable than ensuring the safety of children.

“Parents and carers, and the community generally, have a right to expect that all that can reasonably be done is being done to protect children, particularly when they are being entrusted into other people’s care,” she said.

“While bus travel remains a relatively safe form of transport, there has been increasing concern expressed by parents, carers, community groups and safety organisations that more can be done to reduce the risks that children are exposed to when they travel by bus to and from school and on extra-curricular activities. This is particularly the case for children travelling by bus on high-speed, single-lane roads and for children moving in and around bus stops and interchanges.”

Crash statistics and safety data shows the risk of a child being killed or injured in a bus crash is far higher in rural and regional areas than metropolitan ones.

The committee conceded Australia had not suffered a large multiple-fatality collision or rollover like a recent one in Switzerland that killed 22 children.

“We acknowledge, however, that such a high-consequence event, although it may seem unlikely, is possible given the risks inherent in road transport,” the report states.

The government will have to move swiftly if it is to implement a key recommendation that to avoid such a catastrophe, students should be banned from sitting or standing in the aisles of buses travelling on rural and regional roads by 2013. 

Bus drivers are required to limit their speed to 80km/h when students are crammed in the aisles; however, the committee noted that could actually do more harm than good.

“The committee is concerned that the requirement to drive at a lower speed than the speed zones for the road may also increase the likelihood of other traffic including heavy vehicles attempting to overtake the bus in unsafe conditions,” the report finds.

Installing seatbelts on all regional school buses that travel outside urban areas would require alterations to contracts with private bus companies. The cost of a 10-year roll out would increase the annual cost of rural and regional bus contracts to the taxpayer by about 15 per cent, or $55 million a year.

Other key recommendations include:

• A review of speed limits in rural and regional areas.

• New strategies to minimise the impact of heavy-vehicle traffic on narrow, steep and winding rural and regional school bus routes.

• Trials of better school bus warning lights, markings and school bus zone warning signs.

• Mandatory requirement for regional bus operators to install CCTV in new and replacement buses.

More than 60,000 students across regional and rural NSW travel on a fleet of 1485 dedicated school buses each day.

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