Singleton tragedy renews calls for school bus seatbelts

LISA Turner was a cub paramedic when word came through in 1986 that a bus packed with retirement home residents had careened off a Californian mountain road and into an icy river.

When she arrived to help, 20 crumpled bodies were strewn amid the carnage of what still ranks as one of America’s most deadly road accidents. The bus was not fitted with seatbelts.

“When you are on scene at a bus crash where over 20 people are dead, that changes you,” said Mrs Turner, who now lives in Manyana, on the NSW south coast.

“People were thrown out windows, they were piled up at the back of the bus…it was just total devastation.”

Today, Mrs Turner fears her nine-year-old daughter could suffer a similar fate on the daily 60 kilometre round trip between Manyana and Milton Public School, where speeds can reach 100 kilometres an hour.

“Part of the trip is on a very narrow, windy road with trees on both sides…then the bus turns on the Princes Highway, where there are already little white crosses here they and everywhere from prior carnage,” Mrs Turner said.

“I feel sick to the pit of my stomach every day knowing she is on that bus without a seatbelt.

“That situation is preventable but nothing has been done and it’s absolutely outrageous.”

A horror smash between a school bus and truck in Singleton yesterday afternoon has triggered renewed calls for the mandatory installation of seatbelts.

Nine-year-old Harry Dunn died after being thrown about 10 metres through a side window, while seven other children were injured, two critically. Harry's six-year-old brother, Luke, is among the injured, the Newcastle Herald reports.

NSW and Victoria are the only states not to commit to the rollout of seatbelts on all school buses.

Opponents have argued children would not use them and any mandatory laws would require the purchase of hundreds of new buses. They also point to evidence that most school bus-related deaths and injuries are a result of a child being hit by another vehicle when entering or existing a bus.

Those backing installation consider it hypocritical that seatbelts are mandatory for anyone travelling in a car or coach but not a school bus on high-risk routes. They also believe the cost of acting far outweighs the financial and emotional costs of not.

NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian today said the issue was an “extremely complex matter”.

“It is natural that an horrific incident such as this will prompt discussion about safety issues,” she said.

“This is a debate we need to have. Today, however, our thoughts are with the grieving family and the Singleton community.”

Ms Berejiklian said a committee of road safety experts, transport operators and parents and school associations were soon expected to complete a report into how best to transport children.

The committee was formed well over one year ago.

In rural and regional NSW, about 60,000 students travel on a fleet of 1485 school buses each day. The buses travel more than 50 million kilometres each year.

Victoria's school bus network carries over 73,000 students each day.

The journey Mrs Turner’s daughter takes each day is via one of 297 routes classified among the most dangerous in NSW due to road curvature, gradient, traffic volumes, speed and climate conditions. Many of the buses that negotiate those routes are old, travel at high speeds and are so packed some young passengers are forced to stand.

The routes were revealed last year through a Freedom of Information request by the NSW Greens.

NSW Police deputy commissioner Nick Kaldas today said he would wait to read the committee's report rather than reacting "on the hop".

Mr Kaldas said the costs needed to be adequately assessed, as well as how and where seatbelts would be fitted.

“We need to do it once and do it right,” he said.

The quickest way to have seatbelts installed in all school buses would be to make it a condition in the contract between government and bus operators.

The federal government has budgeted $4 million over the next four years for a program where bus operators can apply for grants of up to $25,000 to help install seatbelts voluntarily.

It followed a finding in the National Road Safety Strategy that more needed to be done to address school bus safety.

“Serious crashes involving school buses are very infrequent in Australia,” the report noted.

“However, there is clearly potential for many children to be severely hurt or killed in a major crash and jurisdictions have taken steps in recent years to increase the availability of buses equipped with seatbelts.”

The program has been criticised because few bus operators have applied for funding.

Just 280 school buses in regional Australia have been fitted with seatbelts since the program began in 2007.

The principal of Singleton’s St Catherine’s Christian College, Brian Lacey, has today vowed to push for the introduction of seatbelts on school buses following yesterday’s tragedy.

The cause of the crash is under investigation. 

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