Alastair Dalton: Seat belts in school buses leave safety hurdles

You may be surprised to learn that fitting seat belts is still not compulsory in school buses in Scotland - let alone compulsory for them to be worn.
More than one third of secondary pupils travel to school by bus. Picture: Johnston PressMore than one third of secondary pupils travel to school by bus. Picture: Johnston Press
More than one third of secondary pupils travel to school by bus. Picture: Johnston Press

While no parent would drive off without their children being strapped into the back seat of the car, many youngsters are still travelling daily on buses without that basic but potentially life-saving protection.

More than half of Scotland’s councils already insist on fitted belts for school transport, and it’s standard on newer buses, but that’s been thanks to good practice rather than the law.

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However, change is afoot thanks to more than a decade of lobbying the Scottish Parliament by campaigners including the late Ron Beaty from Aberdeenshire, prompted by a relative being hurt in a crash.

Holyrood was given the power in 2015 to legislate on fitting belts, and a bill introduced by Aberdeenshire East SNP MSP Gillian Martin was approved in principle on Tuesday.

With Scottish Government backing, it should come into force from next year.

That’s the first stage - compelling the remaining 14 local authorities to have belts in school bus fleets used to transport primary school children in 2018, and for secondary pupils three years later.

However, the far tougher challenge will be persuading - or compelling - these school passengers to wear them.

While encouraging primary school children to comply is normally not a problem, it’s another matter among secondary school teenagers - and they are by far the biggest group involved.

Getting a bus to school is less popular than it has ever been, but it is still very significant for secondary schools, accounting for 35 per cent of pupils’ travel. By contrast, only 6.5 per cent of primary pupils are bussed to classes.

During this week’s debate on the bill, several MSPs related how children had told them it was considered distinctly uncool to belt up in a school bus, some even being teased for doing so.

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It’s not as if travelling on a school bus without a belt is no risk - some 50 pupils a year are injured using school transport.

Chillingly, perhaps current relaxed attitudes reflect the lack of any recent serious incidents and the publicity they generate.

It was quite different seven years ago after Lanark Grammar School pupil Natasha Paton was killed in a coach crash on a school trip.

A fatal accident inquiry found her death could have been preventable, in part had the 17-year-old been wearing a seat belt.

In fact, school trips are currently not covered by the bill, which is focused on travel to and from school.

However, there is pressure for them to be included, both to extend seat belt protection to all school travel and to provide a consistent message to pupils using buses and coaches.

As far as compulsion, children under 14 are not required to wear a seat belt on buses, and the law is reserved to Westminster.

Expect another cross-Border clash on this one.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf said the Scottish Government had pressed the UK Government on this “for some time” - and would pursue it again after the general election.

He said road safety was of the “utmost priority”.

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For now, some creative marketing needs to be brought to bear on making seat belt wearing on buses - by adults as well as school children - as automatic as in cars - a “Clunk Click Every Trip” for the 2010s.