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School Bus Safety

12.30 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): Last month, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a 15-year-old pupil at St. Mungo's school, Falkirk, in my constituency, died tragically in a road accident. Kathleen had travelled home from school by a contracted school bus, as she did each day, to be dropped close to her family home in the village of Bonnybridge. On this day, however, she stepped from the bus on to the pavement and walked around the front of the stationary vehicle, at the same time as a car passed the vehicle from behind on the offside. Perhaps distracted, Kathleen stepped out in front of the car. It seems that the oncoming car was not moving fast but that the driver had no time to react. Tragically, Kathleen was fatally injured. Her younger brother had been on the bus with her, and her mother arrived at the scene soon after the accident. Naturally, both remain deeply shocked, as do the rest of Kathleen's family.

That story is not remarkable or unusual. Such human and family tragedies happen every day, and often involve a painful period of adjustment for those left behind. Few things in life are surer than the fact that risk will manifest itself from time to time. When a child dies, however, the tragedy seems to be all the greater, because of the sense of injustice at the loss of a young life not properly lived. When tragedies such as Kathleen's death take place, we are obliged to determine whether anything can be done to reduce the chances of their happening again.

My aim today is to draw attention to several issues surrounding accidents such as Kathleen's death. I have no doubt that Her Majesty's Government are well aware of the need to work continuously on child safety, and I know that organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and Brake are excellent advocates of the same cause. I want to suggest to the Minister one or two measures that might make a modest contribution to child safety on our roads.

This week RoSPA has been holding its annual road safety conference in Glasgow. The focus of the conference has been child casualties on our roads. Some of the statistical trends presented in research conclusions have been shocking but, sadly, often predictable. For example, road crashes are the leading cause of death among children. Furthermore, 20 per cent. of all child road casualties happen on the school journey, with the greatest period of risk being, as one might imagine, between 3 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon, as was the case with Kathleen.

There is also a socio-economic dimension. Recently, David White, Robert Raeside and Derek Barker of Napier university conducted a study of child road injuries in the Lothians, which border on my constituency. The research showed that children from less well-off backgrounds were as much as six times more likely to be injured in a road traffic accident. The research also showed that children from single-parent families and minority ethnic backgrounds in the less well-off areas are subject to the greatest risk. Other related findings were that the decline in children's death rates from injury over time has been less for children from the manual social classes than for children from

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the non-manual social classes. As a result, mortality differentials between socio-economic groupings have increased. Moreover, injuries to children from socio-economically disadvantaged families tend to be of greater severity. In addition, those children have a higher risk of physical injury in the first place.

The answers to risk reduction across the board depend on several factors, as RoSPA points out. For example, research seems to suggest that as young boys tend to be more physically boisterous than girls, they, in effect, receive a training in spatial awareness that girls do not have to the same degree when they are very young. The apparent effect is that as girls in their early teens start to catch up with boys in terms of boisterousness, they appear to be exposed to a greater risk of road accident injuries. Perhaps schools can tackle that through education and awareness training.

Children now seem to spend less time outdoors than in previous eras, and parents can help to educate them about the dangers of the roads. Statistically, children walking to and from school are at the greatest risk, so parents should be alert to ensure that their children take a safe route for that journey.

The Government can also do many things, and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has initiated the child road safety and Think! road safety campaigns and the road safety strategy. The Minister might want to say more about that.

To return to children travelling to school, children who use public transport should, if possible, be accompanied by escorts, and drivers of contracted school buses should be trained and educated for the task.

The DETR is planning a pilot scheme in conjunction with FirstGroup, a bus operator in the United States of America, to import American yellow school buses of the type that many people have seen on television, in films, or while on holiday in America.

Alexander and Sons has been manufacturing buses in Falkirk in my constituency for many years. It is not a part of FirstGroup; it is a manufacturer rather than an operator. However, it is important that there is a local bus-manufacturing presence, as that gives my constituents an awareness of the industry and the issues that surround it.

It is poignant to note that the Alexander and Sons manufacturing plant is close to St. Mungo's school, where Kathleen Fitzpatrick was a pupil. Her daily journeys took her past the gates of the factory. Local people have noted that sad fact.

American yellow buses have several advantages. They are immediately identifiable by all American drivers, who are expected to take measures that take into account the likelihood that children will decant on to the road. They have additional features, such as flashing lights and extending warning arms that stick out to make it clear to drivers that the school bus is stopping and that children are about to be dropped off. Also, I believe that, in America, drivers are not allowed to pass a stationary yellow bus from which children are

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alighting, which neutralises the risk of children such as Kathleen being run down as they step out in front of a stationary bus.

It is self-evident that the United Kingdom can learn lessons from such American practices, although I accept that the roads and the culture are different in the United States of America, so the UK must cherry-pick the measures that are appropriate to its environment.

In the USA, 54 per cent. of children travel to school by yellow bus. In the UK, the equivalent figure is 20 per cent. In part, that gap might be explained by the greater average distance that American children travel to school. An increase in the number of children travelling to school by identifiable school buses would yield benefits in terms of not only safety but the environment, as cars depositing children at school account for 20 per cent. of morning rush-hour traffic.

At present, most of the 20 per cent. of UK children who travel to school by bus, travel on coaches that are subcontracted by local authorities. It is not unusual for such buses to be rather old--although undoubtedly legal--in style and specification. I have seen some very elderly examples on the roads. Buses on contract must display in their back windows yellow signs to alert passing drivers that they are on contract to schools and that therefore there are attendant risks with children getting off them. However, the contracts are temporary, so the signs should be displayed and removed when appropriate. Children sometimes take signs from the back of buses, so companies nail or screw signs to the back of the bus; when the bus is used for non-school contracted business, the sign is still displayed. As a result, drivers could become desensitised to the signs.

I hasten to add that the DETR inspects such things to minimise risks, but it is likely--I hope that this does not sound too sceptical--that those practices will continue at the margins because expediency is a fact of life. That is not a problem with yellow buses because they are not used for any other purpose. Drivers who see a yellow bus know that schoolchildren are in it. I accept, however, that in economic terms they are relatively inefficient and are therefore expensive.

I understand that FirstGroup, which buys but does not manufacture buses, believes that its bulk-buying capability would enable it to reduce the price of a normal school bus from £110,000 or £120,000 to £30,000--a remarkable reduction. However, I am sure that the DETR would not allow buses to operate unless it was confident that their specifications conformed to safety requirements. In other words, driving down the cost must not lead to driving down safety standards.

Whether or not yellow buses have a place on our roads, one US practice that is worthy of consideration in respect of reducing the risks for children alighting from them is barring vehicles from passing identifiable--however we decide that they should be identified--and stationary school buses in either direction when children are alighting. We could trial the concept as part of a yellow bus pilot scheme, but whether or not that happens, will the Minister say whether the idea has a future? Indeed, does he have other initiatives in mind that may reduce risks for schoolchildren alighting from school buses or travelling to school by other means?

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12.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) on securing this important debate. I add particular congratulations on the eloquence and effectiveness of his speech, because I understand that this is his maiden performance in Westminster Hall. I also thank him for his courtesy in providing notice of the major issues that he wanted to raise.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government, in the form of the Minister with responsibility for Road Safety, Lord Whitty, will carefully consider his remarks. I was sorry to hear of the accident that he mentioned and should like to offer my sincere condolences to Kathleen Fitzpatrick's family and friends. It may be little comfort in such circumstances--indeed, it will provide none at all to the family--but I believe that such accidents do not occur that often. In truth, I cannot provide reliable statistics because the fact that the child had just alighted from a bus was in a sense irrelevant to what happened. That may sound strange in the light of my hon. Friend's remarks, but when someone gets off a bus they are by definition a pedestrian rather than an ex-bus passenger.

The statistical returns for road accidents compiled by the DETR--the STATS 19 forms that are completed and returned to us by local police forces--ask whether incidents occur when people are alighting or boarding a bus. However, when they clear the doorway they are counted as pedestrians. The accident described by my hon. Friend was a case of someone walking into the road from behind a parked vehicle when her view of approaching traffic may have been partly, if not wholly, obscured. Indeed, that is how such accidents are most likely to be recorded.

My assertion--perhaps it is more a hope--that such accidents are few and far between is based on two factors, and although neither is particularly systematic, each might be regarded as a reasonable indicator. First, in response to recent informal inquiries the Local Authority Road Safety Officers Association said that it was unaware of any significant problem in this regard. Secondly, only two such cases have been brought to Ministers' attention in the past two years. One occurred in 1999 and the other in 2000, and in both cases a child was knocked down by a passing vehicle while trying to cross in front of the bus from which they had just alighted.

I shall not pretend that this is a satisfactory state of affairs as far as the statistics are concerned, and my Department will certainly consider whether it would help to amend the accident report form so that more detailed information can be gathered. A further reason to consider changing the form is the risk of an increase in the number of such accidents, if only because, hopefully, more children will use buses for part of their journey to school instead of travelling by car. One objective of our 10-year plan for transport is to increase the use of buses and other public transport--and, indeed, of walking and cycling--to help reduce the unnecessary car journeys that give rise to much congestion and air pollution. Hon. Members will recognise a potential conflict between such objectives and our targets for reducing road casualties, given that it is a fact that, mile for mile, travelling by car is safer than walking or

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cycling. However, I can assure hon. Members that we hope and expect to succeed on both fronts, and are fully conscious of the challenge that that presents.

With the 10-year plan in mind, and as my hon. Friend said, local authorities and bus operators are developing various innovative and dedicated school bus schemes, some of which are based on the American system. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was pleased to announce in Glasgow on 17 February that agreement has been reached on the piloting in Britain of FirstGroup's US-style yellow school buses. The vehicles will be modified to meet all the requirements in our structure and use regulations, and they will satisfy accessibility regulations except where it is reasonable to grant a special authorisation. To avoid doubt, I should point out that, none the less, no exemption will be granted from the recently reduced maximum first step height for new buses that provide a local or scheduled service. The new maximum is no more than 320 mm, instead of 435 mm. For those who still prefer the old money, that translates into a new maximum of about 12½ in, instead of just over 17 in.

Perhaps more to the point, I can assure hon. Members that, like our native British buses, the new ones will be right-hand drive with doors on the left, so in that regard there will be no new safety worries. One road traffic rule in the United States, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West referred extensively, is that other vehicles must not overtake school buses when children are alighting or boarding. As he said, American buses are fitted with flashing lights and waving arms to warn approaching drivers at such times. However, FirstGroup says that at the moment it has no plans to fit such signals to the buses that it imports, so they will not figure in the pilot schemes here. Nor is it proposed that the pilot schemes should include a provision on the overtaking of buses, and I shall explain why in a moment.

We shall want to evaluate the FirstGroup pilot schemes in due course to ensure that we learn as much as possible from them. To that end, officials in my Department will draw up proposals shortly. We shall be particularly interested to know what parents and children think of US-style buses, and we shall want to identify the schemes' success in persuading parents to let children whom they take to school by car to travel by bus instead. We shall also involve the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee in our evaluation.

Given that there is a large bus factory, Alexander and Sons, in my hon. Friend's constituency, it might help to point out that other operators and manufacturers are of course free to develop and market alternative school bus schemes using US-style or other types of vehicles, provided they meet the UK regulatory requirements. However, we shall consider applications for special authorisation on merit only until the end of September 2001. Thereafter, we do not expect to give special authorisations for vehicles with the same design, or which offer the same package, as that proposed by FirstGroup until evaluation of the pilot projects has been completed.

I revert to the safety issues involved in getting on and off buses, and not just school buses. As all drivers should know, the highway code has several separate references to the need to take special care when passing buses and bus stops, because of the increased likelihood of people

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crossing the road nearby. Pedestrians should also take great care, because the size of buses obscures people from the view of passing drivers.

In most senses, the advice is inherent in the green cross code, which most children know well but do not always apply--like their elders and, supposedly, betters. In its most abbreviated form, it is the best advice that anyone can have when crossing the road. It says, "Think, stop, look, listen"--and not necessarily once only--

However, reality can be more complex. Obviously, it is necessary to find a safe place to cross. That is the basic message of the hedgehog cartoon film, first shown last October, that will be screened again later this year. The message is also included in "Arrive Alive--a Highway Code for Young Road Users". About buses, it says:

My hon. Friend has asked us to provide advice to enhance the safety of children travelling on buses. We will repeat the messages about the safe use of roads wherever possible, not only to children using buses, but to those out and about on foot and on their bikes. We will direct the messages not only at children. I am not trying to put responsibility, still less blame, for road accidents exclusively on pedestrians. Drivers, too, must take proper care. They should slow down as they pass buses at bus stops, and be prepared to stop quickly if necessary. Through better training and testing, we are helping drivers to become aware of their responsibilities to all vulnerable road users.

I understand that in the case of the accident in Scotland in 1999 that I mentioned earlier, the driver was convicted of careless driving and fined about £300. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the case, which remains a matter of local controversy, so I will not go into detail. A fatal accident inquiry is to be held. The accident prompted the local Member of the Scottish Parliament, Bruce Crawford MSP, to table an amendment to the Transport (Scotland) Bill during its passage last December. It would have given local authorities the power to designate school bus priority routes where other vehicles would not be allowed to pass a stationary school bus. Although Scottish Ministers were sympathetic to the idea, the amendment, as drafted, did not work in legal terms.

I accept my hon. Friend's point, but we are not convinced that such a measure would be the safest option. It also has practical drawbacks. Some drivers, on seeing a school bus that was about to stop, might take unnecessary risks to get past it before it stopped. Drivers waiting to pull out from a side road might be tempted to come out ahead of an approaching bus, even if in other circumstances they might have considered it safer to let it pass first.

The proposal could also have an adverse effect on local traffic flows, with possible consequences for a wide area, and might be especially difficult to enforce in towns that are already congested. Most important, we fear that, if children were afforded such protection on school trips, they might develop a false sense of security, and take less care when getting off service buses, or when crossing the road at other times.

The Government take road safety seriously. That is clearly evidenced by the publication, last year, of our new road safety strategy. One of its targets is to reduce

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child deaths and serious injuries by 50 per cent. by 2010. I warmly welcome yesterday's announcement by Sarah Boyack of the Scottish Executive of a £11.85 million funding initiative aimed at reducing the number of child road deaths in Scotland.

If we find that accidents involving school buses are a particular problem, we shall consider what more we can do to reduce them. Needless to say, we shall get a copy of the sheriff's determination in the Scottish case as soon as it is published. As ever, Ministers will be ready to listen to any ideas that hon. Members wish to suggest.

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