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School Bus Safety

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 2 July 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Wright.)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate the subject of school bus safety, and it is perhaps appropriate that this debate should follow that we have just had on road safety.

There is a problem in that the statistics are not collected specifically on school bus safety. One of my proposals is that they should be monitored. I first raised the issue in the House 11 years ago, when I introduced a ten-minute Bill. Although there has been a reduction in the number of accidents and deaths reported, there are still too many. A number of them could have been prevented if other measures had been adopted, such as those that I have proposed and on which I should like to engage the Department.

The Department for Transport has data for road casualties in Great Britain by year only up to 2007. Over a three-year period, the number of fatalities among school pupils when travelling to or from school in a bus or tram went down from 21 to eight, while the number of casualties went down from 424 to 338. Although that is an improvement, my area has been shocked by a number of incidents, including two fatalities within two weeks of each other in the past year or so, when 15-year-old Robyn Oldham and 12-year-old Alexander Milne were tragically killed having just got off a school bus.

Robyn had just moved into the area and was travelling home from school at Turriff academy when she was struck down by a car, seconds after getting off the school bus. Robyn’s mum Carla has been campaigning vigorously to raise awareness of the dangers as part of the Bus Stop! and School Bus Safety Group campaigns, to which I shall return. Just a fortnight after that, Alexander Milne—Zander to his family—was travelling home from school in Fraserburgh when he was also knocked down by a car. I have today spoken to Zander’s father Philip and Robyn’s mum Carla, who are both adamant that had there been a rule not to overtake a stationary bus, their children would be alive today. The House will therefore understand their strong feelings about the proposal which the Government are resisting for reasons that I hope I can engage with in this debate.

As a result of those accidents, the campaign for improved safety on buses has been stepped up. It has gained support across a wide spectrum of councils, councillors, parliamentarians from the Scottish Parliament and from this House, and many local residents. All have concluded that improvements can be made, and many believe that changes should be effected through legislation so that a nationwide policy can be put in place, although I hope the Minister will understand that I am looking not only for legislation but for greater safety awareness and an opportunity to make everyone who uses the roads aware of the dangers so that they will behave in a way that will reduce the likelihood of such accidents.

The School Bus Safety Group is run by Ron Beaty from Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire. His granddaughter Erin was seriously injured in a school bus incident five years ago. The group has set up a website——and quite a lot of its proposals have been incorporated into the School Bus (Safety) Bill, which I have presented to the House. The Minister has seen the Bill and responded to it, and I hope that I shall be able to engage him on that subject tonight and subsequently.

The Bill has cross-party support, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the hon. Members for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and to my hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), all of whom have supported it. The Minister will be aware of the work done by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside on the Yellow School Bus Commission last year, which was widely welcomed by many campaigners.

This is not a back-of-an-envelope Bill. It is a short Bill containing very specific proposals, and I have consulted widely on it and continue to do so. I am not suggesting that it would be a definitive law. I am not even asking the Government to adopt the Bill, much as I would like them to do so, but I would ask them to recognise that it contains serious proposals, which might need to be refined or modified but which could make a serious contribution to road safety.

Every day, parents across the country entrust their children’s safety to bus companies on the school run, although I am not suggesting for a minute that those companies and their drivers take that responsibility lightly. Nevertheless, I would like to engage with the Minister on some of the ideas in the Bill, and explain why I believe that they would contribute to road safety. The Bill suggests that school buses should

“be single decked, be fitted with three point safety belts on every seat, be fitted with large external ‘stop’ signs which must be activated when the bus is stationary at bus stops, be brightly and distinctly coloured, and display prominently on the interior and exterior notices containing safety advice for drivers, passengers and other road users”.

Those are very specific proposals. I have also proposed that consideration should be given to the no-overtaking rule, and that a school bus safety council be established to monitor what is happening and to make recommendations on how our safety culture might be improved.

I have also acknowledged that there would be costs involved; I am mindful of that fact. I do not want a culture in which only the big bus operators could provide school bus services and from which the small operators would be excluded. Also, I do not want to see over-regulation resulting in unrealistic costs, given that school transport, including transport over longer distances, has to be paid for by local authorities. My proposals have taken all that into account, in order to ensure that they are practicable, workable and affordable. In that context, I hope that the Minister will take them in the spirit in which they have been put forward.

In the Minister’s reply to me regarding the Bill, he has made a number of statements to the effect that he believes that the existing law is adequate to deal with these issues. Obviously, he will not be surprised to find that I am not entirely persuaded by all his arguments. He refers to school buses already having to meet “minimum regulatory standards”, and states:

“Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations require all buses carrying children (under 16) to or from school to be fitted with a prescribed sign showing clearly to the front and rear.”

I have to say that the signs in school buses are hopelessly inadequate in poor lighting. They are temporary, as they are put up for just that purpose, and they are easy to miss, particularly in poor visibility. He goes on to say:

“Buses carrying children are also permitted to display hazard warning lights when stopping to allow children to board or alight.”

I suggest that that would not have the impact that a dedicated flashing sign would. It could be removable by all means; I understand that buses might well be used for other purposes. I have no problem with the signs being removable, but they need to be prominent, clear and flashing if they are to have the necessary impact.

The Minister also said that under the regulations, additional signs would be “permissible”. Well, it is fine that they are permissible, but they are not required. That is the difference between the Minister and me. He says that the culture is in place, but the law does not enforce it or require it to be enforced. I would suggest that the difference between us is the belief that we need to step up the regulatory framework to the point of requiring a more prominent display of warning signs.

It is true that there have been improvements in the requirement for seat-belts provisions, but they are not fully implemented across the board. It has been put to me that, ideally, in the longer run, three-point belts would be inherently safer. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents:

“Although lap belts are not recommended for pregnant women, they are safe and suitable for other adult passengers. Three-point seat belts are safer, but wearing a lap belt is far better than wearing no seat belt at all.”

I know of people who have suffered severe injuries from lap belts, which would not have occurred if they had been wearing three-point belts. I thus suggest to the Minister that there is room for further discussion about having regulations or at least guidance that is stronger.

Let me deal with the specific issue of the no-overtaking rule, which attracts very considerable support, certainly from the parents of schoolchildren. I notice that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is in her place and I know that this measure is widely supported in the north-east of Scotland. It is believed to be an important contributor to road safety, yet it is resisted by the Department. The Department argues that on higher-speed roads, higher-speed braking might be required, which could be hazardous in itself, while drivers waiting from a side road might be less likely to let an approaching bus pull out in front of them and, indeed, might be encouraged to overtake dangerously when they think the bus is going to stop. That is the Department’s main argument and I am not saying that those considerations are not relevant, but I am not entirely persuaded by them.

The evidence I have seen suggests that where people know that something is the rule, they are likely to comply with it. The fact that it is advisory in the highway code seems to have absolutely no impact on behaviour at all. Perhaps because I have a direct interest—perhaps because I am, I hope, a careful and considerate road user and a parent of children of school age—I would certainly not consider overtaking a stationary bus that is picking up schoolchildren. I would be very mindful of the dangers and likelihood of children moving out into the road.

I am, of course, in favour of a safety culture that encourages children to go to the back of the bus and to wait for the bus to move off. All those things will contribute to safety and they are all relevant, but I can say without fear of contradiction that there is widespread belief that a no-overtaking rule would save lives, and notwithstanding the reservations expressed by the Department, it would be a net contribution to safety rather than the other way round. That requires it to be an understood and accepted law. Other arguments have been deployed, but I hope that I have addressed the key ones and I hope that the Minister will take them in good faith as worthy of further reflection.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for generously allowing me to intervene in his Adjournment debate. If evidence is required and if evidence is also the basis of the Government’s opposition, why have they not looked at countries where these measures have been in force for years and years, without producing the risks that the Government have adduced as evidence for not supporting a no-overtaking rule? Overtaking a school bus is a very serious offence in America, and there does not seem to have been any of these problems. The traffic stops because it has to; that is how it should be.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Government take issue with that, but I certainly agree that there is such evidence. I would also say—I am conscious of my time—that Aberdeenshire and Moray councils cannot adopt that because of the law, but they have adopted a whole variety of safety measures. They have run an excellent campaign under the logo “Bus Stop”, they have set up a website, and they have made changes to regulations requiring all buses to have seat belts by 2010 and prohibiting double-decker buses for school transport.

I assure the House—this is directly relevant to the point made by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning)—there is a clear willingness and, indeed, enthusiasm in Scotland to be given an opportunity to test the proposals in my Bill. I am a Liberal Democrat, not a Scottish nationalist, and I am not interested in an argument between this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, but I am interested in establishing whether my proposals can be applied practically.

The hon. Gentleman said that we had evidence from elsewhere. We could have evidence from the United Kingdom if the Government would consider, for example, allowing a no-overtaking rule to apply in Scotland—it would probably require an area that large to be effective. It could be policed and administered by the Scottish Executive, who are keen to introduce it, and by local authorities in Scotland, which are keen to be part of any test. There could be a very constructive relationship between the two Parliaments which would be widely welcomed, and I urge the Minister to give it serious consideration.

A number of measures are being implemented by the local councils in the north-east of Scotland. Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen and Moray are to be congratulated on the action that they have taken. One example is the “See Me” system, consisting of a flashing light. We have dark evenings, which makes the light much more visible. A contact in Aberdeen suggested to me the introduction of warning signs that would indicate that children were passing the front or rear of the bus, rather like distance indicators. They could be fitted very cheaply, and it would be an example of the use of technology to deliver a safer environment for children travelling to and from school. It was described as a “bus-pedestrian safety control” by Alastair McGuire, who suggested it to me, and I think that the idea is worth exploring.

I want to give the Minister time to give a proper reply. Let me end by saying that I want to engage with him, that I think the campaigners would like to engage with him, and that I appreciate his offering that opportunity. The debate has given me a chance to put some of the terms of my Bill on record, to make the speech that I could not make when I presented it, and to explain some of the parameters. I should be grateful if the Minister did not dismiss them out of hand. I am aware of his objections and I am sure that he will wish to rehearse them, but I hope he will acknowledge that my proposals have been given a great deal of consideration by, among others, bus users, local authorities, parents and others with an interest in bus safety. They believe that the implementation of those proposals would make a real contribution, and they are a little disappointed by the Department’s resistance.

The Department has a new ministerial team, which seems to me to present a fresh opportunity. Even if the Minister articulates the Department’s reservations, which I expect him to do, I urge him to engage with us. I urge him to consider whether the Department can act, by means of adaptation or in some other way. I urge him to consider whether Scotland could test the proposals further, so that we could establish whether at least some of them could become law or be put into concrete effect. That would enable us to ensure that in future there are far fewer tragedies such as those that have blighted the lives of families in the north-east of Scotland and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Minister will engage with my proposals in a constructive spirit; I am sure that he will.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing a debate on a subject that is so important to many children, families and schools. How he managed to secure a debate on this subject that immediately follows an estimates day debate on road safety is beyond me, but I congratulate him on managing to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of a coalition in his constituency, but it is no coincidence that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) were present to hear his speech. The way in which he tempered his remarks, and the way in which he has led the campaign, is reflected in the fact that Members on both sides of the House were present to listen to his valuable speech.

I was extremely sorry to hear about the recent deaths in Aberdeenshire of Alexander Milne, aged 12, and Robyn Oldham, aged 15, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The family and friends of young people who are killed, and those who survive but whose lives may be utterly changed by a tragic collision, have my deepest sympathy. Nothing I can say will bring them comfort, but I assure the House that we take the safety of children and of all road users very seriously. The right hon. Gentleman referred to my offer to meet him to discuss not only his private Member’s Bill, but other issues. It was a genuine offer and I will listen with open ears to the points he makes at that meeting, just as I did to his short speech. I will not make a Second Reading speech or try to rebut the points that he made. Some of the key parts of his proposal are in place, while it is always worth reflecting on others proposals, especially if tragedies could be prevented in future.

All buses used for school transport must meet minimum regulatory standards to ensure that the vehicles can operate safely to carry passengers on the public highway. The safety provisions for single and double-decker buses are equivalent. Buses carrying children to and from school already have to show retro-reflective “Children” pictogram signs; their minimum size is prescribed, but larger versions may be used. Secondary reflective signs, with markings or wording to indicate that children are on board or nearby, are also permitted—the right hon. Gentleman wants them to be obligatory—as is the use of the hazard warning lights when children are getting on or off.

Since 1997, irrespective of the vehicle’s age, all coaches and minibuses—though not public transport-type buses designed for urban use—have been required to have either lap seat belts or lap and diagonal seat belts fitted if they are used to carry groups of children aged between three and 15 on organised trips. That would include dedicated home-to-school transport. Since 2001, seat belts have also been required in all new buses, except those designed for urban use where standing passengers are carried.

The responsibility of choosing the appropriate vehicle for a particular journey rests with those making the arrangements. Schools and local authorities can specify requirements above the minimum within their contracts with school transport providers. For example, they could specify in the contract that they will accept only vehicles fitted with lap and diagonal belts, or that signs should be above the minimum size. They can also specify the fitting and use of additional hazard lights or illuminated signs, and the removal of signs when buses are not being used as school buses. It is perfectly open to local authorities in Scotland to do just that.

Stopping all traffic from passing a school bus if children are getting on or off—a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead—is of course a reserved matter; our traffic signs regulations, which would include the proposed stop signs on a school bus directed at other road users, apply in England, Scotland and Wales. National consistency in the use and meaning of traffic signs is extremely important to ensure good compliance, and this is particularly true with safety-critical signs. We have considered the suggestion of adopting the “all-stop” rule, and we do not think that it would be the safest option. Most children who travel to and from school by bus use ordinary public service buses, and would not benefit.

One of our concerns is the possibility that children who were afforded such protection on school journeys might develop a false sense of security and take less care when getting off public service buses, or when crossing the road at other times. I promised the right hon. Gentleman that I would have open ears, however, and I will discuss the detail with him and listen to him at our meeting. He referred to a pilot, and we can discuss that when we meet. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead referred to the United States and to Canada, and we could look at the empirical evidence that exists in those countries. It is a mixed picture, but we can discuss it when we meet. There will not be a rebuttal; it will be a genuine discussion of whether there are possible solutions to the problems that the right hon. Gentleman identified.

The Department for Transport does much to promote the safety of children. Among other things, we issue advice, guidance and teaching materials. The Highway Code gives advice to drivers and other road users emphasising that drivers need to take special care when passing buses and bus stops. Rule 209 specifically covers stationary school buses displaying a school bus sign. The code is not in itself a legal document, but drivers are expected to be aware of its advice and failure to observe this can be cited in any prosecution for offences such as careless driving or dangerous driving. It cannot just be parents, or those with experience of bereavement, who drive safely; it must be all of us, especially around children.

I took my driving test so long ago that it did not have the theory element—I am not sure how long ago other hon. Members present took their tests—but I have been assured that the theory element that now exists in the 21st century stresses the need to be aware of, and allow for, all vulnerable road users. It is important that people getting off the bus take special care as well, especially because large vehicles can hide them from the view of passing drivers. We advise in the highway code that people of all ages need to be careful at all times when crossing the road, and particularly that they should wait until the bus has moved away. That advice is repeated in much of the teaching and publicity information that we distribute, including our free booklets aimed at children beginning to cross roads and travel independently.

The first materials in our new, comprehensive set of road safety educational resources were issued this spring. They will cover all ages from four to 14, and will help teachers and local authorities to train and educate the children in their care. We have recently launched a new publicity campaign aimed at six to 11-year-olds, and we are planning a new teen road safety campaign for later this year. All these initiatives aim to instil good road-crossing behaviour and demonstrate the consequences of poor choices. We are currently disseminating the Kerbcraft child pedestrian training scheme, whose evaluation has shown that the scheme is highly effective in delivering a lasting improvement in children’s road-crossing skills and understanding.

I could have responded to the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech by giving lots of reasons why we cannot do what he suggests, but I think it is far more important that I have put on record what currently takes place and will meet him to discuss with an open mind some of the matters he has raised. I welcome his comments, and he fairly said that it is not possible to change behaviour through legislation alone; we must look at all possible options and levers at our disposal in order to try to reduce deaths and injuries.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), said in closing the estimates day debate on road safety, the statistics for injuries and deaths have decreased, but they are still not low enough. The fact that last year we had the second lowest number of deaths among young people since records began does not give me any comfort when I consider the facts of the two deaths to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. They are tragic, and they could have been prevented.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for having introduced this debate, and to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead for having stayed to the end. I consider the issue of promoting school bus safety to be very important. I hope that I have demonstrated both that we are very active and have an open mind in this area.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.