While School District 71 is holding off on any major retrofit of school buses to add seatbelts, it’s not sitting in neutral.
District staff have put together a report for the board of education incorporating findings from broader reviews of the issue, including a couple of pilot projects, along with some local context for trustees to consider. This includes some recommendations.
The biggest consideration is whether to retrofit the buses. One complication is that regular school buses are all operated by First Student Canada, which has a contract with the district, meaning wording for any retrofit work would have to be added.
“It would require going back to the contractor and taking a look at the contract,” superintendent Tom Demeo told the board.
Many bus manufacturers are making buses that are seat-belt ready. The district staff report estimates the cost to add belts would run between $8,000 and $18,000 per bus while retrofits of other buses would be between $15,000 and $36,000 per bus.
“A lot of the buses in fleets are not adequately prepared for seatbelts,” Demeo said. “Significant retrofitting would have to occur, and many of the manufacturers are producing buses that are retrofit-ready.”
The district also operates a small fleet of activity or mini buses with a capacity of 24 people and which do have seatbelts.
The staff report notes the central question of safety. The review here and in other districts across the country in recent years was prompted in part by an investigative piece on television suggesting current guidelines and practices, which do not require belts, are outdated and in situations such as side collisions can expose students to serious risk. The board asked staff to look into the matter at a meeting in December 2019.
“I feel that this is an important part of our due diligence,” board chair Sheila McDonnell said.
However, on the whole, the latest staff report says current design uses concepts such as compartmentalization – similar to how egg cartons protect eggs – with high-backed, padded seats to protect students.
Another consideration is the possibility that adding belts could require a change in the design of seats, which itself could increase the risk to students on the buses, as could the improper use of belts. There are also questions about safety in different types of accidents.
On a positive note, the report finds that students statistically are much safer riding on school buses than getting to school by other means: 72 times safer than those travelling by car or 45 times safer than those walking or riding a bike.
The district staff recommendations include continuing with the current practice of purchasing only activity buses with belts, monitoring the current pilot projects in Canada looking at belts on buses, following the provincial and federal guidelines around belts on buses and working with the contractor on the matter of bus safety and belts.
The report also mentions the potential for the risk to students when entering or exiting a bus. A national task force recommended measures such as infraction cameras, extended stop arms, exterior 360-degree cameras and automatic emergency braking. Director of operations Ian Heselgrave addressed these, saying they are related to busing that uses eight-way flasher systems for loading and offloading, whereas the Comox Valley system is different and in most locations has students wait until the buses leave to cross the road to ensure there are clear sightlines.
“It’s a much safer system,” he added.