Public pressure for mandatory seatbelts on school buses has grown louder since a Port Alberni school trustee raised the concern among fellow board members this fall.
Trustee Rosemarie Buchanan was among viewers who tuned in to recent episodes of CBC’s Fifth Estate, reporting that thousands of Canadian kids have been injured or killed because school buses are not equipped with seatbelts.
The show highlighted a petition launched by Gary Lillico, an Agassiz school bus driver, calling for Transport Canada to require seatbelts. More than 45,000 people have signed the petition since it was posted by Change.org.
Buchanan recalls raising the seatbelt concern as a newly elected school trustee almost 40 years ago. She questions why a 2010 Transport Canada study, which determined that seatbelts would prevent injuries and save lives, was not released to the public.
“Who was manipulating this and to whose benefit?”
The issue was thrust into the spotlight after the Humboldt Broncos tragedy last spring, though that collision involved a motor coach, not a school bus.
When Buchanan raised her concern again at the first meeting of the new school board last month, trustees agreed to flag it for wider consideration by the B.C. School Trustees Association. Trustees gathered at the regional “academy” of school boards held recently in Vancouver, but the issue wasn’t brought to the floor.
“There was some discussion, but I think we’re in a bit of a holding pattern,” she said.
The estimated cost of retrofitting the Alberni Valley school bus fleet is $7,000 to $10,000 per vehicle, she said. There are only a half dozen or so buses in the fleet, but equipping them could be complicated by seating configurations that vary between elementary and secondary students.
“We haven’t actually sat down as a group and gone over it,” Buchanan said. “I think we are all on the right side of the issue.”
School board chair Pam Craig said the matter has been considered only in preliminary fashion and would be pursued by the provincial body, not locally.
“It wouldn’t be us as a school district dealing with it. It would be the larger body looking into it,” Craig said. “If it does come forward, it will be at the April AGM.
There are counter arguments that suggest buses are designed to be safer than other passenger vehicles and don’t need seatbelts as a result. Buchanan notes that may be true in collision but not in rollovers.
“I think we well be seeing a lot of school districts pressuring the province, but I don’t think the money should come from the province,” she added.
Transport Canada should be the agency responsible, especially since it sat on the report for almost a decade.
“Now we’ve got eight years of catching up to do and I think the federal government should pay for it,” Buchanan said.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau ordered a departmental review of school bus safety and seatbelts last month after the Fifth Estate series first aired.