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School bus operators get ‘voice’ on safety

BusNSW will push the position of school bus operators at the inaugural School Bus Safety Committee meeting on July 4

By David Goeldner | June 17, 2011

NSW’s new School Bus Safety Committee is less likely to act outside of the state’s school bus sector interests with BusNSW acting as the operators’ representative at the committee’s inaugural July 4 meeting.

BusNSW Executive Director Darryl Mellish says the association has been invited to join the committee, which he sees as an imperative for operators to have their voices heard on school bus safety issues.

The committee’s terms of reference are to assess the status of school bus safety in regional and rural NSW, consider the full range of school bus safety measures, with reference to national and international experience and to recommend the most effective ways to make school bus travel as safe as possible.

“The Minister has quite correctly looked at safety matters on broader terms and framed the terms of reference to consider all aspects of school bus safety,” Mellish says.

Leading up to the first meeting, BusNSW has invited feedback from operators on the committee’s terms of reference.

“Some operators have sent us comments, and we are collecting those comments and they are commonsense suggestions,” Mellish says.

Many concerns revolve around the perceived need to install seat belts on all school buses throughout NSW and how that might affect contracts.

“If there is a need to put on a seat belted, bus operators are questioning how kids who can’t fit on to that bus are going to be carried – in some cases it may require an additional bus,” he says.

Currently seat belts are compulsory in NSW just for smaller Category One vehicles, typically Toyota Coasters or Mitsubishi Rosas.

“But the contracts have a requirement that makes seat belts impractical for most school bus routes,” Mellish says.

“It limits the capacity, and government contracts in NSW require a certain capacity.”

Mellish says the problem tied to contracts relates to seating primary school students three-abreast on adult seats for two people.

“There have been some operators who have installed seat belts where they haven’t had a capacity issue and have been able to fund a new bus with contributions from their charter work,” he says.

“But you are not encouraged to install seat belts because of the way the contracts have been written.”

Mellish is aware there has been a push from some committee members to make seat belts compulsory on all school buses.

“If you look at the terms of reference it’s broader than seat belts, it’s all aspects of school bus safety, not just seat belts,” he says.

“In some cases there may be other solutions to improving the safety of the student which may relate to speed, re-routing, driver training and infrastructure.

“But there are a couple of lobby groups just pushing for seat belts.”

Mellish is confident that BusNSW can confidently work with the new committee following the recent appointment of Carolyn Walsh as chair.

“We are encouraged to see the chair has been appointed – Carolyn Walsh – who has had a lot of experience in regulation and safety,” Mellish says.

“We have worked with Carolyn before when she was with ITSA, the Independent Transport Safety regulator.”

Mellish will impress upon the committee the need to get an understanding of the operating environment faced by school bus operators before any decisions are passed on to Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian.

“We have talked about the committee visiting a number of school bus runs, particularly where interchanges of students occur where students after school choose from a large network of buses,” Mellish says.

“We will be making sure there is operator input and suggest the committee visits some of the areas that are representative of the operating environment.”

Mellish says the role of the operator would also be made known to the committee.

“The operator is really the meat in the sandwich,” he says.

“On the one hand the parents want seat belts, and on the other hand the government has limited resources and will spend money where it does the most good.”

Mellish says the operator has the interests of passenger safety at heart.

“If this turns out to be seat belts, and as long as it’s properly funded, the operator wants what the passengers want.”

During the recent announcement of Walsh as committee chair, Minister Berejiklian outlined the committee’s obligations.

“The installation of seatbelts in school buses, and other relevant issues, would be considered by the new safety committee,” Berejiklian says.

“The vast majority of school travel occurs without incident with Austroads data showing bus travel is the safest mode of transport for our school children.”

Berejiklian says the School Bus Safety Committee would help guide the NSW Government’s future plans for making school students as safe as possible.

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