The new board of School District 70 held its inaugural meeting Tuesday. From left, Larry Ransom, Rosemarie Buchanan, Chris Washington, Connie Watts, Sandra Leslie, Pam Craig and John Bennie. Washington, Watts and Leslie are newly elected. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Port Alberni locked in on school bus seat belt issue

We need to make some noise,’ school district chair Craig tells board

MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Port Alberni school trustees will consider the possibility of equipping school buses with seatbelts.

Like motor coaches, school buses are not required to have seat belts, a longstanding safety concern in the eyes of at least one trustee.

Transport Canada, which will require seatbelts on highway buses by 2020, has long contended that seat belts pose greater risks than benefits on school buses.

Rosemarie Buchanan said she’s frequently raised the issue during her 22 years on the board of education.

“Transport Canada needs to get off its butt and give us some regulations for seatbelts on all new buses,” she said. “This is a huge tragedy waiting to happen.”

After hearing a report from School District 70 Superintendent Greg Smyth on the matter, trustees agreed to raise the issue at the Vancouver Island School Trustees Academy at month’s end as well as with the provincial council of B.C. School Trustees Association (BCSTA) in February 2019.

“It became quite immediate in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy,” Smyth told trustees. The coach crash in April claimed 16 lives and injured 13 other passengers.

Smyth cited a Canada Safety Council figure suggesting people are 16 times safer on a bus than in a car. Nothing is directing District 70 to put seatbelts on school buses, he noted.

An independent, knowledge-based group dedicated to safety, has been down this road many times before. Experts, including the council, do not believe seat belts on school buses would improve safety. After the Humboldt tragedy, the issue has remained in the public eye.

“We don’t have an idea that bus transportation is unsafe at this point and we don’t know how much safer it would be if seatbelts were installed on school buses,” Smyth said.

Yet school boards will be on the hook financially if Transport Canada should choose to make seat belts mandatory on school buses. To act pre-emptively by installing some form of belt or safety harness could prove to be a waste of funds should regulations later require a different approach, he suggested.

“We certainly think it would be incumbent on the Ministry of Education to fund it if they require any changes,” Smyth said.

Greg Roe, director of operations, pointed out that the greatest safety hazard is created by drivers who disobey school bus lights flashing red. A new camera system being installed on District 70 buses will help monitor inappropriate behaviour and catch traffic offenders, he said. The systems are already in use in areas including the Fraser Valley.

“We’ve already made inroads with local law enforcement to let them know this is coming … and they’ve been receptive,” Roe said. “Again, it’s not the be-all, end-all, but I think it’s focusing on the right area.”

School buses are quite a bit safer than they were 20 years ago, he added. While seat belts would “probably” improve safety, they could also be problematic given considerations of age compatibility among children and youth.

Pam Craig, board chairwoman, said she is troubled by an eight-year-old Transport Canada report on motor coach seatbelts that wasn’t shared with the public.

“Children are used to getting in a vehicle and putting on a seatbelt, and I do think that it’s going to be incumbent on the trustees in the province of B.C. to make that message loud and clear to the minister,” she said.

Craig said she advised BCSTA to expect a motion from school districts calling for “some serious investigation of seat belts” on school buses in the province.

“We need to make some noise, I think,” Craig concluded.

“I get the newer buses are safer, but they’re not as safe as buses where they have to be strapped in,” said Buchanan, who used to have a Class 1 licence.

“In a rollover, those kids will be tumbling around,” she added. “They will be ejected out windows. There will be serious damage and injuries.”

Retrofitting buses would be expensive but the ministry of education should provide funding, Buchanan said.

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