Wednesday, June 8, 2011

School bus systems buckling under pressure?

Tranzwatching trends in bus technology, Australia and NZ

School buses in rural Taihape, Te Ika a Maui 

The pressure for seat belts to be fitted to buses and school buses and to eliminate standing passengers on open road school trips seems to be growing both sides of the Tasman.

In New South Wales the State Government recently established a School Bus Safety Community Advisory Committee to look at all safety matters, including the relative safety of some of the more rugged back country school routes and the issue of seatbelts in school buses. Headed by Carolyn Walsh, who has has had 25 years professional experience in transport safety and safety regulations the committee will also include road safety experts, transport operators, parents and school representatives. Representatives of the [aptly named] Belt Up for Safety (BUS) group from Coffs Harbour are also pushing to have a seat on the committee.

At Valla and Bellingen, other communities in the area, parents are particularly worried about children on crowded buses standing in the aisles when buses are on the open highway and are campaigning as a priority for all children to be seated on the more potentially dangerous bus routes. However rare bus crashes may be, parents in Northern New South Wales know better than most just how deadly they can be if other heavy vehicles are involved, in particular [see historic note below] However the large added cost of seatbelts and extra buses has NSW politicians worried. Seatbelts are already mandatory on school buses in three states, Western and South Australia and Queensland

In Nelson New Zealand a collision between a school bus and a car just north of Nelson last week, which ended with a bus rolling into a paddock, has left both the car driver and bus driver still in hospital with moderate injuries - the only two children on the bus at the time were only kept in hospital only on the first night. In a Nelson Mail report principal of the children's school Chris George says there are arguments for and against seatbelts – but they would definitely keep children safer. "We have to have seatbelts in cars, so what's the difference really. There's a huge cost to do that but what's a kid's life [is] worth I guess."

A spokesman for New Zealand Transport Agency notes that school buses rate as the safest method for children to get to to school, safer than being driven in a car - "in the past 10 years there have been three serious injuries and no fatalities involving school-age children as passengers on school buses". As is the case in NSW the head of the local principal's association notes that the real worry is the standing in overcrowded buses by high and intermediate level school students, "I am aware that some buses have students standing in the aisle. Just imagine if one of these buses had been in this morning's crash. It would have been carnage."

Equally, so rare it represents a tiny chance in a million, but nonetheless occurring from time to time across the world, is the death of children whose school bags or back-packs get trapped in rear doors while exiting, dragging the child under the backwheels. A tragedy for the child and family, a huge trauma for the driver and other pupils involved. A tragedy of this nature occurred in Wainoni, Christchurch about forty years ago. Whilst some modern vehicles have sensors to instantly open doors again if any object is in the way, some bus companies such as Redbus in Christchurch will only allow younger children in school groups to enter and exit by the front door where drivers have a far better chance to see that all children are well clear of the vehicle and are not skylarking close to the bus.

Seatbelts are not mandatory in any larger bus in New Zealand, but are starting to appear in some of the newer long distance coaches. Typically the driver will announce over the p.a. system at the start of the journey,,  "The law says if seat belts are fitted it is the law they must worn, please buckle up".  In my experience only a portion of passengers respond by doing them up, but one can hardly expect a lone bus driver to police this. The logistics of enforcing this against recalcitrant youth or other ostereporous passsengers are very much in accord with "You can lead a horse to water but not make it drink" variety! Passengers can anyway undo them for comfort at any time. If seatbelt restraint in buses was to become a world wide legal restraint, it might open up potential to develop airbag systems in the back of bus seats for the passenger behind. This said professional driver alertness and the shunting momentum of a heavy bus, means it is rare for a bus in collision to be not already braking, and for the smaller vehicle impacted not to absorb some of the suddenness of the stop. This certain prevails within most urban collisions, with bus passengers very very rarely receiving significant or life-threatening injuries. And more lives have been lost from buses going off the road in rural areas.

The New South Wales initiative is starting with trying to ensure children are not standing on more exposed higher speed highway sections - I don't know if this is addressed in New Zealand or not but, if not,  it seems a good place to start. It is part of the "busism" to degrade buses in this way, that considers standing travel acceptable, where it is illegal to sit in the back of a car with no seat, only years of prejudice allow us to think this way. Seat belts in buses seem more likely to filter down from top end tour coaches or odd imports in the first instance, as small risk exists against such huge cost, it seems unlikely NZ Government would fund such an expensive project for all buses.

Redbus in Christchurch operates a comprehensive set of school routes (currently effected by post earthquake sharing of high school premises, morning and afternoon school in two shifts). Buses used for school contracts are often in the latter years of their cost-effective working life, which would add further complications and reduce long term benefits in retrofitting seat belts.

AND just to show this problem of underfunding school buses and insufficient seating \ is not confined to NZ and OZ - a horror story from Northern Ireland

A tragic historical note

There are probably few places in the world where residents are quite as aware of bus passenger safety as Coffs Harbour and Northern New South Wales, Australia. In 1989  two of the most horrendous bus crashes in the history of the developed world occurred on the Pacific Highway not far from Coffs Harbour.

In the first ocurred at 4am one night,  a semi-trailer truck loaded with tinned pineapple veered across the road at Cowper near Grafton and ploughed straight into the front of a bus heading in the opposite direction, killing both drivers outright and 19 passengers.  An autoposy revealed the truck driver had 80 times the therapeutic level of "stay awake" aphetamine type stimulants in his blood, a common practice of long haul drivers to take, but even this it seems was not enough to keep him awake.

This crash was followed - indeed mirrored - by one even more horrifying, only two months later and three days before Christmas 1989, when a southbound tour coach driver fell asleep at the wheel, neither dipping his lights nor braking as he ran at highway speed straight into a tour coach heading in the opposite direction near Kempsey. The collision killed both drivers instantly. The impact snapped seats from their anchor bolts. Seats and passengers were thrown about the vehicles with a terrific amount of force, which also trapped people and their luggage against the back of the bus. 35 people died and 41 were injured. The collisions and coroner's reports spurred strict monitoring of drivers hours, bus safety change, restrictions on use of stimulants by long haul drivers and a - still incomplete - up-grading of the highway itself.

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