Edmonton·CBC Investigates

Man injured in 2008 central Alberta school bus crash calls for mandatory seat belts

A young man who suffered severe injuries in a 2008 school-bus crash in Rimbey, Alta. says the federal government should make seat belts mandatory in all school buses, following a CBC News: The Fifth Estate investigation.

CBC News: The Fifth Estate investigation reveals serious flaws in Transport Canada study

Keenen Clark suffered severe injuries in a 2008 school-bus crash in Rimbey, Alta. — injuries he believes a seat belt would have prevented. (The Fifth Estate)

A young man who suffered severe injuries in a 2008 school-bus crash in Rimbey, Alta. says the federal government should make seat belts mandatory in all school buses.

Keenen Clark called for the major safety change following a CBC News: The Fifth Estate investigation that revealed major flaws with a landmark 1984 Transport Canada study. The study concluded seat belts in school buses were not necessary and may cause injuries.

Clark was 14 when a gravel truck slammed into the back of his school bus, which had just stopped to pick up three passengers. The impact of the crash ejected Clark from the bus onto the pavement. He suffered head trauma, a crushed kidney and a ruptured spleen, and broke three vertebrae in his spine.

"I would have probably received no injuries, if I would have stayed on the bus," Clark told The Fifth Estate's Bob McKeown for the episode Unbuckled: School Bus Safety. "Everything that happened to me, happened after I fell out of the bus."

Another student on the bus, 17-year-old Jenny Noble, died after also being thrown from the bus.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau declined The Fifth Estate's repeated on-camera interview requests.

Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason said he was concerned by The Fifth Estate report but said he needed more information before deciding whether to act.

"We need to get some answers," Mason said. "I will be asking my department to review this with the federal department of transportation and give a report back to me."

Following the fatal crash, the Alberta ministries of transportation and education published a report on school bus safety. The report included Transport Canada's claim that seats belts were not needed.

"No Canadian province requires seat belts on school buses and Alberta is not considering a requirement for seat belts at this time," the report stated. "While any injury or fatality involving a school bus is one too many, studies have found that due to the design of school buses, seat belts would not necessarily make buses safer and may, in some circumstances, put students at greater risk of injury.

"Transport Canada conducted consultations on this issue in both the 1970s and 1990s, and based on the evidence concluded that seat belts do not provide additional safety benefits in large school buses," the report continued.

Landmark study seriously flawed

Instead, according to Transport Canada, students on school buses were adequately protected by "compartmentalization," where strong, closely spaced and high-backed padded seats absorb the impact of a crash and prevent students from being thrown around.

But the investigation by The Fifth Estate found Transport Canada's 1984 study, which still influences school bus safety policy across North America, was seriously flawed.

A close examination of the 1984 study shows Transport Canada never tested side-impact crashes or rollovers, where most serious injuries and death occur. Nor were any of the dummies fitted with three-point lap and shoulder belts, already proven to prevent ejection and injuries in cars.

An in-depth review of dozens of other studies prepared by academics, test crash facilities, and computer modelling spanning decades shows repeatedly that seat belts in school buses would have prevented serious injuries and death.

Don Voaklander with the University of Alberta's Injury Prevention Centre says Transport Canada must fully disclose the research behind its recommendation to not equip school buses with seat belts. (Peter Evans, CBC News)
A scathing review by University of Michigan researchers dismissed key findings in the Transport Canada study as "exaggerated" and its conclusions invalid.

In fact, documents obtained by The Fifth Estate show Transport Canada had initially wanted to put seat belts on school buses and had even set a date in the late 1970s for the rule to take effect.

But after some "aggressive" lobbying by school bus operators and school boards, the proposed seat belt law was withdrawn, mainly because of the so-called "cost-benefit ratio." In other words, operators and school boards did not think there would be enough injuries and deaths to justify the additional cost of installing seat belts in every school bus.

Transport Canada conducted a test crash in 1984, the results of which influenced decision makers across North America. But The Fifth Estate revealed that, by the time of the 1984 test crash, Canadian officials were already aware of — and had written about — a previous study showing that seat belts would have saved lives had they been installed in school buses.

Injury prevention expert calls for review

Don Voaklander, director of the University of Alberta's Injury Prevention Centre, said the findings of the CBC News: The Fifth Estate investigation were shocking.

"Most of us that work in the safety business in Canada have based our thoughts and our messaging on Transport Canada's recommendations, that compartmentalization is the way to go with school buses," Voaklander said.

"We had hoped that Transport Canada was providing us with objective data and if that is not the case, we are disappointed," he said, adding that Transport Canada needs to fully disclose the research that informed its influential study.

"Perhaps we need to revisit some of those studies with more modern techniques to make sure that we are actually making recommendations that will keep children safe on school buses," Voaklander said.

Clark said he still suffers the effects of his injuries from the crash that flung him onto the pavement on that foggy morning in 2008.

"A lot of trauma happened that day, maybe by things that could have been prevented. It definitely makes me think of what we are doing to keep everyone safe while they are on a bus," he said.

"If something isn't changed now, it's just irresponsible."

With files from The Fifth Estate

About the Author

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell are reporters with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. @charlesrusnell @jennierussell_