Nfld. & Labrador

Putting seatbelts on school buses a 'money issue,' former N.L. operator says

The Newfoundland and Labrador government says it takes lead from Transport Canada, which is now reviewing seatbelt safety on school buses after a Fifth Estate investigation.

Province takes lead from Transport Canada, which will review research after Fifth Estate investigation

A 17-year-old died after being ejected from a school bus that was hit by a gravel truck in Rimbey, Alta., in 2008. Over the past 30 years, there have been at least 23 school bus passenger deaths in Canada. (Submitted by Kirsten Hodgeson)

A former school bus operator in western Newfoundland says seatbelts aren't being added into school buses because of cost.

"It's very much a money issue," Dave Callahan said.

"The minute that they adopt school buses having seatbelts in them, they're going to require at least a third more buses in this province because there will no longer be three [students] to a seat. It won't be possible."

There are school buses that have been retrofitted to have three seatbelts in a row. However, the installation of restraints would carry an added cost and could affect capacity.

Transport Canada has long said there aren't any restraints on school buses because it's safer not to have them.

But a Fifth Estate investigation uncovered a previously unpublished report contradicting that position.

The 2010 Transport Canada study, never made public, found school buses failed safety tests and didn't do enough to prevent serious injury.

The contention that school bus seatbelts could do more harm than good — a position repeated on Newfoundland and Labrador government websites concerning school bus safety — comes from a widely cited 1984 Transport Canada study that didn't consider rollover or side-impact crashes.

A school bus lies on its side near Stouffville, Ont., after it collided with a commercial truck last week. No children were on the bus and no one was injured. (Sgt. Kerry Schmidt/Twitter)

Callahan, who spent 30 years running his family's 50-year-old busing business under the Central Service Station Ltd. umbrella, believes three-point seatbelts would "maximize safety."

"Seatbelts have proven to be the thing that works in every other form of motorized transportation," he said. "I don't know why school buses would be devoid from that."

N.L. bus belt requirements

In Newfoundland and Labrador, busses under 4,536 kilograms, with the exception of school buses, already require lap and shoulder belts, according to Service NL.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District would neither agree to an interview nor send a statement on the issue, steering inquiries to the province.

Service NL, the department responsible for bus inspections in this province, also declined an interview, but said in a statement that it "will continue to follow the school bus regulations as outlined by Transport Canada."

A provincial website answering frequently asked questions about seatbelts on school buses says, "If seatbelts were deemed safer, they would be used."

It adds, "This decision must be based on data and science and not on emotion and supposition."

The province, through its website, backs the compartmentalization model, where seat design is the safety mechanism. 

The closely placed, high-backed seats are used to "absorb the energy of an impact if a child is thrown against the padded back."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau is ordering his department to take a fresh look at the data on school bus safety and seatbelts to see if new regulations are needed. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the wake of the Fifth Estate investigation, the federal transport minister said this week that the safety issue would be revisited.

"I have instructed my department to take an in-depth look at the question of seatbelts in buses — a fresh look based on all of the evidence that has been collected since all the way back to 1984," Transport Minister Marc Garneau told the House of Commons on Monday.

Old school buses had belts added after sale

Dave Callahan, meanwhile, left the busing industry this year because he said he couldn't safely and profitably provide the service at the rate the school district was willing to pay.

He said some of his old buses later had belts installed.

So they took them out of the school system, great to haul kids, but… we'll use seatbelts for the adults going to work. Absolutely asinine.- Dave Callahan

"I sold some school buses a while back to a project at Bull Arm and before they could use them to haul adults around on what was mostly their work site — I guess they were on the highway as well — but before they could use them they had to install seat belts in them," Callahan said.

"So they took them out of the school system, great to haul kids, but … we'll use seatbelts for the adults going to work. Absolutely asinine."

The provincial government's Q&A page says "based on evidence currently available no Canadian jurisdictions require seat belts on buses."

But there are areas in America that require them, according to the Fifth Estate investigation.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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