Opinion: Seatbelts add another ball to bus drivers’ juggling act

THE push for seatbelts in school buses, while very commendable, suffers from one major flaw — most kids won’t wear them.

Parents are sadly deluded if they think their “angels” sit sedately in the bus for the entire journey to or from school, just quietly reading, watching the scenery pass by or talking to their friend next to them.

While seatbelts would restrain them in the rare event of a crash, belts would also stop children moving about the bus to join in whatever conversation is happening eight rows back, kneeling on the seat to talk to the person behind, standing on the seat to reach the small ventilation window at the top so they can shout to or at someone on the footpath, stop bullies and other attention-seekers reaching more of their captive audience and would generally restrain the 101 other activities children get up to in a school bus.

No wonder the bus companies and drivers are all for the idea and the children aren’t.

Drivers can advise, cajole or warn and report but they have yet to eliminate such behaviour on buses and probably never will — not even among the serial offenders who can find themselves banned and having to find other transport for several weeks.

Drivers often stop the bus to reinforce the message — a tactic that obviously works better with students eager to get home than in the morning — but within minutes the offenders are moving about the bus again.

The prep and primary schoolers, too young to know fear or the consequences of a small human body propelled by momentum into immovable metal, are oblivious to the danger.

The high schoolers just ignore it because wearing belts is almost as uncool as doing what someone in authority tells you.

A high school student, being warned recently, finished the bus driver’s sentence for him, “... while the bus is in motion, yeah, yeah, we know all about that”. It sums up the teenagers’ attitude.

As a group of senior school students was embarking on an excursion, their teacher walked down the aisle checking that seatbelts were buckled up.

As soon as the teacher returned to his seat at the front, the driver could hear the clicks as the belts were undone — and this was on a coach about to head down the freeway at 100km/h.

Under the present seatbelt laws, a bus driver is required to advise his passengers only once that belts are fitted and must be worn.

Do you know any child who does something after being told once?

Having the driver constantly monitoring his passengers would be impractical — if he can’t see them throwing the remains of today’s lunch on the floor or sticking chewing gum under the seat, he’s certainly not going to know if their seatbelt is buckled.

But he will have to make sure the child in the back seat is not using the belt to strangle the kid next to him or that, just as the passengers leave their seats to disembark, some prankster does not drag a belt across the aisle to trip them up — given the tools, kids can be quite inventive.

Students know the “safest” time to run back up the aisle — safest as in not getting caught — is when the driver’s attention is glued to the windscreen as he steers through an intersection or around a corner, which is, of course, the most dangerous time to be moving about a bus.

Keeping an eye on students in the internal mirror, traffic in the external mirrors, while navigating through city streets and country roads, is one of the great balancing acts of driving a school bus.

Another achievement is to drive safely amid the distractions of 50 children conducting a conversation at the top of their voices while trying to outwit the driver so they can switch seats or create some other piece of mischief.

Seatbelts in school buses is “leading a horse to water” and it will be up to the parents and the schools, not just the bus companies and the drivers, to make sure the horse drinks.