Better safety measures are needed to protect kids on school buses

Editorial & Opinion, Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Last week, I accompanied my daughter to the mall to take her first ride on a school bus. The event was hosted by Laidlaw to teach kids about school bus safety and for a photo opportunity for the parents (to preempt delays on the first day of school?)

The bus was just as I remembered: yellow outside, tall green vinyl bench seats inside. My daughter led us to the back of the bus and I told her with a smile that it is bumpier at the back. We had a great time bouncing over the streets and I watched my daughter slide half way across the bus on one turn. She was having a great time, and then it hit me . . . there are no seat belts on the bus.

My daughter is no slouch, so what am I going to do when she makes the connection? How will I explain that the Ministry of Transportation has decided that it is illegal and unsafe for children to ride in a car without the proper restraints, but that Transport Canada thinks it is perfectly fine on the bus?

MTO regulations for children in passenger vehicles are quite strict, and our children will be in car seats or boosters until they are 80 lbs. or have reached the age of eight.

On the flip side my almost-four-year-old can get on the school bus with only one adult supervisor, who has his eyes on the road, and she can bump about unrestrained.

I am dumbfounded and maybe a little jealous. It would make my excursions to the grocery store so much less painful if I didn’t have to fuss with strapping two kids into car seats. I could save my back from further medical visits and I could attempt multiple errands in one outing and be more environmentally friendly.

I’m not suggesting that we eliminate car seats; I’m questioning the lack of them and/or seat belts on the school buses.

I’ve read about the “passive crash protection system” in our school buses, that relies on small windows, foam padded metal surfaces, high seat backs, and little space between seats (called compartmentalization) to prevent passengers from being thrown from buses.

Finally, I understand why Air Canada doesn’t have a lot of leg room – they are protecting us by compartmentalization.

The MTO site www.mto.gov.on.ca states that school buses are built differently and “seat belts may actually adversely affect the safety of children on school buses.” It is counterintuitive to most of us that children are safer without seat belts and I need more reassurance than “may.”

Transport Canada’s website http://www.tc.gc.ca/ says: “Children are many times safer riding a bus than any other form of transportation to school.”

But, the draft paper Canadian School Bus Collision Summary 1989-1997 says: “there are, however, individual instances where seat belts could have prevented injury. They involve rollover, ejection and impact with other passengers or the bus interior.”

Similarly, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a report on school bus safety and found “compartmentalization” was ineffective for side impacts and in rollovers. Passengers, especially smaller children and those sitting closer to the aisle, were propelled from the “compartment.”

Back to the MTO page: “Because school vehicles carry passengers from the very young to high school students, if seat belts were used, they would need to be readjusted and their use monitored. A seat belt not worn correctly may cause serious injuries.”

The most serious injury is becoming a human projectile thrown out of the bus. Seems to me that the worry about installing seat belts is resource related and that more money and time/supervision would be required if they were installed.

Knowing how well my daughter can work her current car seat clips, I think she and her mini-colleagues would be mentally and physically equipped to secure the belts properly.

So if improper use is not the problem, ask me if I am I worried about the cost. I’m sure a lawsuit resulting from the death of one child would outweigh the financial/emotional cost of installing seat belts. I’ve already poured hundreds of dollars into car seats, so what’s another couple for my children to be safe on their way to and from school?

Only one Canadian jurisdiction currently requires seat belts on school buses – Etobicoke.

Also, as of April 1, 2007, all newly built school buses in Canada are required to have a minimum number of seats (two to eight, depending on seating capacity) equipped with lower and tether anchors for ferrying young/small children (under the age of about four and weighing less than 18 kg) in a car seat.

Shouldn’t we make all of our school buses safer since we’ve had the technology for decades? All of our school buses should have lap/shoulder belts for older children and anchor systems for small projectiles, I mean small children.

Until we have additional safety measures on school buses, explaining to my daughter why she has to use a car seat and a seat belt in the car just became a lot more difficult.

At a minimum I’ll be trying to convince my daughter to sit at a window when she boards the bus, so that she has the best chance to stay in her “compartment.”

Transport Canada has regulatory responsibility for new school bus safety standards, while provincial governments fund and regulate the operations of school buses and decide on retrofits.

Feel free to send this article to your MPP or MP with a note asking for your children to be protected on the buses as they start school.

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