School Buses (Safety)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 17 February 1998.

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:32, 17 February 1998

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce safety regulations for school buses; and for connected purposes. Like many hon. Members, over the years, I have received many representations on school bus safety. I commend the present and previous Governments for all that has been done in recent years to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries. Nevertheless, all hon. Members will agree that there are still too many accidents and injuries. Parents who see their children heading off to the school bus, especially in rural areas, are understandably anxious that everything possible is being done to eliminate the dangers that their children face.

Safety measures introduced in recent years have helped to reduce dramatically the number of fatalities and serious injuries on our roads, in spite of the substantial increase in traffic. The numbers killed have dropped from more than 5,500 per annum in the first half of the 1980s to around 3,500 per annum today. The numbers seriously injured have fallen from around 75,000 to around 45,000 per annum. They are still too high, but there has been a considerable reduction. The total number of injuries, however, has remained about the same, so we have reduced the severity of accidents rather than their absolute number by a combination of technology and road safety measures, with which the Bill is primarily concerned.

The specific record for buses shows a fairly static pattern, but, as all hon. Members will know, the worst accidents and near misses tend to be widely publicised and cause a great deal of public concern and dismay. To a greater or lesser extent, in recent years the Government have taken action on the issues on which I am focusing attention, but there is now clear scope for a consolidating Bill to strengthen and extend safety measures.

I think that everyone—not only hon. Members but the public—is aware, either by visiting north America or by seeing them on television or at the movies, of the highly distinctive north American school buses, which are black and orange-yellow with flashing lights. The north American experience may not be entirely appropriate for the UK, but I believe that we can learn from it.

School buses should have clear and prominent markings. Currently, school buses are required to display a black and yellow sign depicting two children. I argue that those signs are not very prominent, and that they are not always removed when the bus is not on school business. Buses are also allowed to use their hazard flashers to indicate that they are picking up or setting down, but there is little evidence that many do.

I therefore suggest in the Bill that buses must be more prominently and distinctively marked. Even if signs are removable, they should be impossible to miss. Buses carrying schoolchildren should be unmistakeable. Additional warnings and road safety rules should apply when buses are picking up or setting down. For that reason, prominent and distinctive flashing lights, mounted front and rear, should give a clear warning that a bus is stopping, stationary or moving off, and also in which direction it is travelling.

When lights are flashing, it should be illegal to overtake a school bus. The reasons for that seem to be clear. Although it is preferable to encourage children to wait for the bus to move off, leaving clear vision, the fact is that very often children getting off a bus attempt to cross the road quickly, when they may be hidden from view by the bus itself. I therefore believe that a prohibition on overtaking would reduce the accident risk in those circumstances. I argue also that traffic approaching from the opposite direction should be required to slow down to no more than 20 mph and be prepared to stop.

I can testify that—according to the police on duty at the time—in the past two or three years, one fatality in my constituency might have been averted had those regulations been in place and enforced.

In the past couple of years, another experiment has been conducted in my constituency which has been largely successful. Variable speed limit signs have been installed outside Kintore primary school, on the A96—which is the main Aberdeen to Inverness road. When children are arriving or leaving the school in the morning, at lunchtime and in the afternoon, the signs are changed from 30 to 20 mph. At those times, buses and cars are parked outside the school.

I have myself observed—I was there last Friday—that most traffic does observe the limit; everyone is much more alert to the possibility of children leaving the school; and the school crossing patrol and children have more safe opportunities to cross the road. The Government also believe that the experiment has been broadly successful and will be encouraging its wider use where appropriate, taking account of local factors.

There has been a long campaign in the House, after some tragic and widely publicised accidents, to ensure the fitting of seat belts in school buses. The Government have introduced regulations requiring the fitting of seat belts in minibuses registered after 1988. It seems reasonable to rule that only minibuses that are capable of being safely fitted with seat belts may be used as school buses, and that seat belts should be so fitted.

It is extraordinary that other buses are subject to no such regulation. Indeed, there is no requirement for seat belts in coaches and buses, and children can even travel standing on buses. It is reasonable eventually to require safety restraints for all our children, as advocated by BUSK—the belt up school kids campaign.

I have discussed the proposals in the Bill with those at ROSPA—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—who told me that they represent a significant contribution to school bus safety.

I believe that the improvements that we have had—which I have welcomed—in recent years have been piecemeal and remain incomplete. It really is time to consolidate and to make it clear that there is no compromise in our determination to adopt practical measures to make school buses safer.

I accept that no rules will legislate for the idiots or for the negligent: there must be no let-up in vigilance and road safety campaigns that make everyone aware of the dangers. Children must continue to be warned to take every care when crossing the road, whatever regulations are in place. A couple of weeks ago, a truck failed to observe the speed restrictions in Kintore and came within inches of killing the school crossing patrol. Not surprisingly, she has now terminated her employment.

I do not believe that these regulations are a guarantee of absolute safety—I do not pretend they are—but if they were in place, they would reduce risk, accidents and casualties. We must create a culture of care. We must monitor closely how the regulations are working, and we must enforce them. A spokesman from ROSPA told me that a number of the changes introduced in recent years have simply not been monitored to see how effective they are, and how they can be enhanced and improved. I would argue that we need to bring all the measures together.

I am pleased to say that my Bill has attracted support from all parties in the House, and I commend it to the Government and the House. I hope it will lay the foundations for greater safety for school buses and for our children on their journeys to and from school for now and for the coming years.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Don Foster, Mr. Gareth Thomas, Mr. Graham Brady, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Phil Willis, Mr. David Stewart, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. Peter Bottomley and Mr. James Wallace.