Bus belt imbroglio

To belt up or not to belt up that’s the question facing the O’Farrell Government in NSW over seat belt funding

Bus belt imbroglio
Bus belt imbroglio

By Ian Porter| May 20, 2011

The O’Farrell Government in NSW is addressing a conflict inherent in the current school bus contracts that require operators to buy larger buses not fitted with seat belts.

A resolution to the problem would involve the NSW Government funding the retrofitting of seat belts of the purchase of new category 2, 3 and 4 buses fitted with seat belts for use on certain routes.

The NSW Government has formed a consultative committee with the industry and other stakeholders. There is growing public pressure for the fitting of seat belts, but fitting them to all buses would be prohibitively expensive.

The Department of Transport and the Bus Association of NSW (BusNSW) have already started discussions on how existing contracts can be modified to make seat belts available on the routes where it is deemed they are necessary.

The formation of the committee has coincided with a move by the Greens to use the Freedom of Information rules to obtain an audit conducted by the Roads and Traffic Authority into NSW regional and rural school bus routes.

The audit found that around 300 school bus routes were classified as Environment III routes, which are in a higher safety risk category.

BusNSW Executive Director Darryl Mellish says elements that contribute to this higher risk rating include geographic layout, traffic and climate conditions.

He says the conflict arises because regional and rural bus contracts are based on the requirement for category 2, 3 and 4 buses to be able to carry three primary school children on a seat designed for two adults.

Using a bus with two seat belts on each seat would mean that, in some cases, the operator of a school bus route could not carry the contracted number of students, therefore potentially breaching the contract.

Mellish says the formation of the consultative committee was in line with a pre-election commitment made by the O’Farrell Government.

The committee will address three principal tasks:

- assess the status of school bus safety in regional and rural NSW.

- consider a full range of school bus safety measures with reference to national and international experience, and

- recommend the most effective ways to make school bus travel as safe as possible.

Any recommendation requiring seat belts for all passengers on an Environment III route would put many operators on these routes in an awkward position, Mellish says.

"Under the contract, it is very difficult to supply category 2, 3 and 4 seat-belted vehicles because the operators are likely to be in conflict with their contracts.

"Together with the Government, we are looking at ways to modify the contract to make it possible to introduce seat-belted vehicles on routes where they are shown to be needed."

Mellish says under existing contracts where operators buy one of the larger school buses, and specify seat belts, they may not be able to legally carry the number of students they are contracted to carry each day.

"The discussions that have started will look at ways that, if the operating circumstance requires a seat-belted vehicle, this requirement will be fully funded (by the Government) and not in conflict with the contract."

Mellish says the first meeting with the DoT on this matter had been ‘very productive’.

"BusNSW raised the need to address a number of issues including cost, capacity issues, enforcement and drivers’ responsibilities."

He also says the limitations of NSW contracts have also been an impediment to operators accessing federal Government funding for improving school bus safety.

Mellish added that the consultation was happening against a background of increasing debate on school bus safety. Community pressure was growing for additional funding to improve school bus safety, including provision of seat belts on some routes.

"The Government and the industry agree that bus travel is the safest mode of transport for our school children – seven times safer that travelling in the car."

He says the seat belt issue generated a lot of emotion and that bus operators found themselves the meat in the sandwich between some parents, who want seat belts, and the Government, which only has limited resources and knows that bus travel is the safest mode of transport.

"In the end, the operators want what their customers want."

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