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Inside the current Australian bus industry safety issue

In the wake of multiple bus and coach crashes this year, groups of victims and experts have formed to push for reform. But what can policy makers and the industry do to make bus and coach travel safer in Australia?

June 11 is a day that will stick with road safety expert John Gaffney for the rest of his life. It was the day of his son’s wedding in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley region. It would turn into a horror night as 10 attendees of the wedding would become victims of one of the worst road safety accidents in recent Australian history.

For Gaffney, he remembers noticing that the weather conditions in the Hunter Valley typified the symptoms of a classic night for a crash.

“I’d mentioned it to people at the wedding that everything was conducive for a classic crash night that I have discussed in my published research,” Gaffney told ABC.

“It was a beautiful sunny day, warm for a winter’s day, as a large temperature drop (near zero degrees Celsius) occurring through a lack of cloud cover meant moisture fell to the ground. This, when combined with cold tyres, cold brakes and darkness, catches many drivers out.”

When the tragedy then unfolded in the hours after his son’s wedding, Gaffney’s expertise would be remembered. In the week that unfolded following the crash near Greta, Gaffney put pen to paper and made notes on what the transport industry could do to improve safety.

Gaffney wasn’t the only one to wake up in the aftermath of the crash remembering those words. Alex Tigani survived the crash after being thrown from the bus. He too recalled Gaffney’s words and when he met with Adam Bray, whose son Zach had been sitting next to Tigani that night and lost his life in the crash, they decided to get in contact with Gaffney to see what could be done to stop it from ever happening again.

Together, the three of them have begun calling for change in the bus industry to ensure there’s not another crash like the one seen in the Hunter Valley in June.

“I started calling for change on my own by sending letters to federal and state ministers,” Gaffney says.

“My son was talking to Adam at one of the funerals and Adam said there needs to be an investigation into the safety side of buses, so my son got Adam in contact with me, with Alex also joining us to point out the current road-blocks preventing safety reform from occurring.”

John Gaffney

The group’s first goal in its advocacy was to ensure everyone who boards a bus or coach has access to a seatbelt and is compelled by law to wear them. When Gaffney began reaching out to politicians, federal members told him that the enforcement of wearing seatbelts is on each individual state and territory government.

Yet Gaffney hasn’t taken this as an appropriate answer. During his career as a road safety expert, he learnt of a plethora of safety systems already endorsed in Europe and other global regions that haven’t been included on Australian buses and coaches.

Instead of harping on the issues of this oversight, the trio have committed to promoting new safety innovations that could improve the safety of Australian buses and coaches.

“What we’re doing is fast tracking and understanding the priority of safety initiatives,” Gaffney says.

“We’re also interested in the speed limit side. In Europe they’ve limited the speed of buses in certain areas, especially if there are standing passengers onboard.”

The group is already starting to gain traction, having presented their plan to the Bus Industry Confederation (BIC). In late August, they also presented the same points to assistant federal transport minister Carol Brown to push politicians to implement changed laws.

Their plan starts with the compulsory wearing of seat belts on all buses and continues by calling for coach and bus operators to provide a fully trained professional ‘safety attendant’ to manage seat belt wearing. Unlike others in the aftermath of the crash, Gaffney understands this responsibility can’t be left to the driver.

The seven-point plan also includes an intensive education program on seat belt wearing alongside improved selection and training processes for recruiting and retaining bus drivers that includes psychometric testing and compulsory real-time driver monitoring systems.

From his road safety background, Gaffney has also presented the idea of reviewing road design standards and speed limits while also reshaping bus roll-over standards, including bus window, emergency access and egress rules.

“Research suggests many buses crash on curved sections of roads where there’s guard rails everywhere,” Gaffney says.

“Do buses meet design standards for if they fall on the sharp edge of a guard rail, particularly at the speeds at which buses travel?”

The final point of the plan is to ensure the nation’s bus fleet is equipped with the world’s best onboard and real-time safety equipment, including innovation such as tyre pressure monitoring systems, automatic emergency braking, vehicle rollover warning systems, black box data loggers and intelligent speed assist.

Gaffney says this technology also extends to bus glass glazing. When asking the federal government about these standards, Gaffney says they have already revised the standard on glass recently, but Gaffney wants them to also consider the egress ejected from a bus in the instance of a crash.

Gaffney, alongside Tigani and Bray, have a multitude of reasons to be negative towards policy makers for the tragedy that occurred near Greta in June. However, they are all choosing to be constructive and forge a path forward that makes buses and coaches a safer form of transport on the road for all passengers and drivers.

Gaffney says the bus and coach industry has a superb safety track record throughout the decades in Australia, but that doesn’t mean more can’t be done to prevent rollover crashes from claiming more lives.

“It requires organisational and structural change to get these amendments made as soon as possible,” he says.

“We need to work out who is responsible for regulating bus safety, as buses carry millions of Australians every day, so the industry deserves its own specialised regulator as a bus is quite different to a normal heavy vehicle in its design, usage, payload and safety requirements.”

Many both inside and out of the Australian bus and coach industry woke up the morning after the Hunter Valley bus crash with heavy hearts as they heard the news. On the other side of the world, professor emeritus of road safety at the University of NSW and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine Raphael Grzebieta awoke to find out two things.

One – he had been recognised with a Member of the Order (AM) as part of the King’s Birthday proceedings, and two – that a bus crash in the Hunter Valley had claimed the lives of 10 people.

The first point was quickly forgotten as Grzebieta moved to respond to the frustration and shock he felt at the bus crash.

“It was horrible to hear because the 10 lives that were claimed in the incident didn’t have to be lost as a result of the crash,” Grzebieta told ABC.

“It was very frustrating as for a number of years I’ve been pushing the federal government to adopt safety practices that help prevent these horrible incidents from claiming lives.”

In a similar method yet a completely different environment to Gaffney, Grzebieta spent the days following the crash compiling a list of four key reforms that he thinks the Australian heavy vehicle industry needs to adopt at a quicker rate. Instead of lagging behind European standards, the road safety expert has called on Australian policymakers to consider making seatbelts mandatory on NSW long-haul buses and coaches.

Grzebieta also told the Sunday Morning Herald that alongside this seatbelt move, unnecessary delays in introducing emergency braking and stability control had to be fixed, as well as seeing an introduction of ejection control and rollover crash standards mirroring recent US policy.

Lastly, he echoed Gaffney’s thinking in voicing the need for black box recorders onboard local buses and coaches to be made available to police to decipher the critical parts of the crash.

Grzebieta says bus and coach rollovers standards, or the lack of them, is a key issue that requires immediate reform in Australia.

“We’ve seen a number of rollovers at round-abouts, particularly with trucks and buses, that turn out particularly bad,” he says.

“I’ve been involved with many projects where we recommended an operator buys heavy vehicles with appropriate electronic stability control (ESC) to control how fast drivers can take a corner, eliminating the majority of rollovers.

“We need to see this technology made mandatory as soon as possible.”

Alongside the need to make seat belt wearing mandatory on all buses, not just coaches, Grzebieta also called for unnecessary delays in introducing emergency braking and stability control to be fixed.

Current electronic stability control and mandatory braking standards aren’t required to be fitted into new models until November 1 this year and in all vehicles from November 1 next year.  The professor wants to see this brought forward while also looking at rollover crash standards to mirror regulations in both Europe and the US.

Grzebieta says changes can start on the seat belt front by installing technology that alerts drivers if passengers aren’t wearing a seat belt. This could then play into Gaffney’s idea of having attendants onboard or a designated responsible person provided by the hirer if buses are chartered to ensure seat belts are worn before the vehicle moves.

He then wants to see fatigue issues and safety glazing prioritised once this amendment is made.

“I’ve been asking for a couple of decades now for Australia to look at safety glazing standards on vehicles,” he says.

“Bus safety glazing can be used to protect occupants. Wearing seat belts isn’t solely enough – you also have to have additional safety glazing, and there should be a standard introduced for this technology onboard all Australian buses and coaches.”

Both Gaffney and Grzebieta agree that the next course of action is for policy makers to begin changing rules. ABC reached out to the Victorian Department of Transport and Planning (DOT), who responded saying it’s got safety reform on the agenda, without revealing what it is specifically looking at.

“Buses on our network cover more than 128 million kilometres every year and all drivers have to undergo rigorous assessment and training before they’re allowed to operate a bus carrying passengers,” the DOT told ABC.

“The Victorian government is also looking into rules around seatbelts on school buses following the Exford bus crash – there will be more to say once that, and any other investigations, have concluded.”

The Victorian DOT says its School Bus Program, since 2013, has ensured all new school buses have been fitted with seat belts, raising seat belt rates from 43 per cent to 90 per cent.

Commercial passenger vehicle safety regulator Safe Transport Victoria is also looking into safety changes. It told ABC that new reforms from March this year require operators to establish, maintain and comply with management systems to safely manage operations, including maintenance and risk management of bus and coach fleets.

In New South Wales, where the Hunter Valley crash occurred, the state government has already began acting, instructing its recently formed Bus Industry Taskforce to investigate safety concerns. The industry is yet to hear the results of these investigations.

Although recent bus crashes this year have caused politicians to begin considering safety changes, Gaffney is intent on hastening these reforms.

With the backing of other road safety experts, Gaffney and his group intend to continue meeting with federal politicians to ensure the Hunter Valley tragedy, alongside other incidents, form the catalyst for change in the bus and coach industry.

“I’d like to see innovative bus reform come out of this tragedy,” Gaffney says.

“I want reform that encompasses the major changes we have put forward and is met with a more responsive approach to prioritise the safety of people.

“In five or 10 years’ time, I want to look back and say how did we allow these standards that are currently in place? It’s time this innovative reform is fast tracked in Australia.”

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