'It's a miracle she can string words together': Push for school bus seatbelts

Emily Blake with her mother Susan. Photo: VICKY HUGHSON
Emily Blake with her mother Susan. Photo: VICKY HUGHSON

Victorian parent groups are launching a campaign calling for mandatory seatbelts on school buses, especially when travelling on dangerous country routes, to prevent more children being injured in crashes.

The Australasian College of Road Safety has also called for urgent action, saying even though it was well known that seatbelts saved lives they were not in use in school buses on high-speed routes in Victoria and New South Wales.

And Child Safety Commissioner Bernie Geary last year wrote to Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder saying that he had received regular correspondence over the past three years from people concerned about the lack of seatbelts in school buses, particularly when they were overcrowded and travelling fast in rural areas.

''Obviously, the risk of serious injuries for children is magnified in the circumstances of a high-speed crash with children being unrestrained,'' Mr Geary wrote.

But Mr Mulder said research showed that students who travelled by bus were significantly safer than those who travelled by car.

''A report prepared for the Australian Transport Council in 2002 concluded that the implementation of measures such as seatbelts on buses would be very expensive and would not contribute materially to a reduction in the national road toll,'' he wrote to Mr Geary last year.

The federal government mandated that buses and coaches built or imported after 1995 have lap sash seatbelts following two catastrophic bus crashes near Grafton and Kempsey in 1989, in which 54 people were killed.

However, the safety standard does not not apply to buses on scheduled routes or buses with fewer than 17 seats.

Late last year, an independent safety committee in NSW handed down a report calling for school buses in rural and regional areas to be fitted with seatbelts within 10 years.

The committee 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 NSW government is still formulating a formal response to the 93-page report.

These exempted buses without seatbelts are being used to take children to and from school in country Victoria, even though they often travel at speeds of up to 100km/h on highways.

Parent groups representing children at both state and private schools in Victoria will band together to lobby the government in advance of the 2014 state election to mandate seatbelts.

The campaign comes after 10-year-old schoolgirl Emily Blake suffered brain damage in a bus crash near Warrnambool in 2009 and six-year-old Shayla Perry was injured last year when a bus braked sharply near Alexandra.

Emily's mother, Susan Blake, said her daughter was in hospital for 10 months.

''With brain injury you lose everything, she went back to babyhood,'' she said.

''She couldn't feed herself, she couldn't talk or walk, she couldn't control her bodily functions. It's a miracle she is actually stringing two to three words together now and it's three years down the track.''

Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy said the issue was even more timely given the government this year gave preps free storybooks stressing the need for greater road safety awareness.

She said it was a shame that despite the road safety campaign, Mr Mulder knowingly allowed students to commute on buses unrestrained.

''Parents Victoria is astounded by Minister Mulder's response to this issue especially when our own child safety commissioner, Bernie Geary, has also advised him about the volume of correspondence he has received over the last three years on this issue,'' Ms McHardy said.

''We cannot fathom how governments can advocate and promote safety messages on one hand and yet on the other they allow schoolchildren to continue to travel on buses that are not compliant to the [safety] standard.

''Parents Victoria do not want it to take a fatality before this safety compliance rule will be finally attended to on all buses.''

Victorian Parents Council executive officer Christine Delamore said she was alerted to the issue by a parent, Clare Hooton, whose six-year-old daughter Shayla was injured last year when a bus braked on the Merton to Alexandra school bus service.

''We are working collaboratively on the issue of school bus safety with Parents Victoria … as our concern is for all children regardless of which school they attend,'' Ms Delamore

Australasian College of Road Safety national president Lauchlan McIntosh said school buses should have seatbelts and children should not be able to stand in aisles or wander around on buses.

''The state government goes to a lot of trouble to ensure that kids sit in the back of cars and are restrained and yet somehow it's OK in a bus not to be belted,'' Mr McIntosh said.

''Western Australia and South Australia have done it.''

Leon Hain, a member of the Victorian committee of the Australasian College of Road Safety, said the federal government should reintroduce a subsidy to retrofit seatbelts in buses.

''The Victorian government should stop ordering buses without seatbelts and instead order fully complying school buses,'' he said.

Fairfax Media's questions to Mr Mulder were forwarded to Public Transport Victoria.

''Victoria complies with federal seatbelt standards and does not require compulsory fitting of seatbelts the school bus fleet,'' a Public Transport Victoria spokeswoman said.

However, she said, the government did not object to school bus operators choosing to fit seatbelts to their buses, and about 220 vehicles in Victoria's school bus fleet were fitted with seatbelts.