Safety committee finds balance at Coffs Harbour

A fact finding tour of school bus operations at Coffs Harbour could provide balance in the debate on seat belts

Safety committee finds balance at Coffs Harbour
Safety committee finds balance at Coffs Harbour

By David Goeldner | November 25, 2011

The views of the NSW School Bus Safety Committee could be tempered with an eye-opening fact finding tour of the Coffs Harbour district recently, realising that bus safety is not just wrapped in fitting seat belts.

Initially overwhelmingly in favour of mandatory fitment of seat belts on school buses across NSW, the committee’s recent excursion to northern parts of the state gathered views and witnessed school bus operations providing a more comprehensive assessment of what’s required to make buses safe on country roads.

BusNSW Executive Director Darryl Mellish says it was the first time the school bus safety committee had gone on the road since it was formed by NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian earlier this year.

"The main benefit of going to Coffs Harbour is the committee members can now really see that the infrastructure outside the bus is a very important part of school bus route safety," Mellish says.

He says the Coffs Harbour exercise bought matters into perspective, focussing the committee’s attention on what was outside the bus influencing school bus safety.

Some of the roads travelled by the committee on a typical school route in the district were in need of repair, narrow in parts and subject to sharing space with other heavy vehicles, such as trucks.

"It opened up the committee’s eyes to seat belts as just one part of the equation," Mellish says.

A key part of the committee’s fact finding mission was to gather views from a public forum held in Coffs Harbour.

Mellish says the forum was attended by school principals, teachers, parents, and other community members,

He says a problem in areas like Coffs Harbour is that councils have little money to fix country roads, and old roads are being used more and getting worse.

"Operators considered areas outside the bus where money would be best spent."

Fixing roads and upgrading kerb-side infrastructure were listed as priorities.

Innovative suggestions included fixing flashing red 40km hour signs to the back of buses, similar to speed limit signs at either end of a school pick up and set down zone.

"I think operators also accept there is a risk in a 100km zone in buses without seat belts," Mellish says.

"They understand parent’s concerns about seat belts even if the evidence doesn’t support seat belts."

He says operators have an overwhelming commitment to the safety of their students, but they feel like they are the ‘meat in the sandwich’ because they want what their customers want.

There is also a high level of driver skill required to negotiate some school difficult routes, and some roads are barely wide enough for the bus.

"The committee is still in its fact finding phase, and I think there will be a few more country trips where we collect further data," Mellish says.

The final report is planned for completion by April next year, which is then sent to the NSW Transport Minister for consideration.

"I can’t pre-empt what the recommendations will be, but this was a commitment by the shadow transport minister before the NSW election," says Mellish.

Mellish says Gladys Berejiklian’s commitment to the committee means she is taking the issue seriously.

"I am hopeful that before Christmas the committee will look at a draft framework for the report, because once we are finished the fact finding we need to get into the deliberations phase – and we are not at that phase yet."

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