ALL dedicated school buses in Scotland will have to be fitted with seat belts under a planned change to the law announced today.
The move is expected to mean nearly 600 more vehicles being equipped with belts, or more than one in four of the dedicated school bus fleet north of the Border.
Campaigners who have lobbied MSPs for eight years over the issue claimed credit for the change, but there were fears about whether the cost - which has yet to quantified - could see some school bus routes axed.
Transport minister Keith Brown said the Scottish Government had been given approval in principle from the UK Government to transfer the relevant powers to the Scottish Parliament, since much transport safety law is reserved to Westminster.
He said the law change should be completed by the middle of next year, and phased in in stages from around 2018.
Some 570 of Scotland’s dedicated 2,120 school buses do not have seat belts. However, there are also up to 1,000 other “general service” buses used to transport pupils which would not be covered by the change.
Mr Brown said: “It is imperative we do everything we can to protect Scotland’s children, ensuring they are as safe as possible as they travel to and from school.”
Campaigners claimed the move was a direct result of a petition to MSPs which they lodged seven years ago.
Ron Beaty, of the School Bus Safety Group, said: “Would this have happened without our group? In a word, no.
“Transport Scotland has had years to do this. It was never on their radar until the petition was lodged.
“It’s a big step. Great news for school bus safety, but only part of the problem.”
Mr Beaty, of Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire, whose granddaughter Erin was seriously injured after getting off a bus in 2004, is also lobbying for better signs to reduce such incidents.
Holyrood’s public petitions committee, which has been considering a petition on seat belts, is also examining a separate one on signs.
Its convener, and Highlands Labour MSP, David Stewart, said: “We have been waiting an eternity for this so I’m absolutely delighted. It has been caught up in bureaucracy.”
Ed Morrow, campaigns officer for road safety group Brake, said: “We believe it’s essential all school transport provides seatbelts, and all children can get to school safely and sustainably, so we welcome this move.”
The Confederation of Public Transport (CPT), which represents bus operators, said the seat belts must be used.
Lanark teenager Natasha Paton, 17, who died when a coach crashed in icy conditions on a school trip in 2010, was not wearing her seat belt.
A CPT Scotland spokesman said: “We support any measure to improve safety on school transport.
“However, at this stage, further consideration is required on the full impacts of this policy on school transport providers and local authorities, such as the matter of responsibility for ensuring that the seatbelts provided are used.”
But one industry source feared the cost of installing seatbelts would force councils to scrap school transport considered “not entirely necessary”.
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “It is our intention to implement this in a way that ensures there is no additional funding impact on local authorities.”
Sandy Allan, road safety manager for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Scotland, said: “We welcome today’s news from the minister. For a number of years, it has been mandatory to have seatbelts fitted to private hire coaches, but these vehicles are not used for all school journeys.
“A lot of our local authorities already operate good practice by stipulating the fitting of seatbelts to coaches used for school trips. If some operators, through this legislation, have to fit seatbelts to additional coaches to keep contracts, it can only benefit all passengers carried on them.”