Taking the bus to and from school has various advantages over other modes of transport. However, there are numerous hazards involving buses and coaches that children and their families should be aware of.

This week (23 – 29 June 2014) is Child Safety Week, an annual campaign organised by the Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT) to raise awareness of the accidents that can seriously injure or kill children, and how to prevent them. This year, CAPT are focusing on the accidents that are likely to happen during the morning rush. As bus and coach travel is a very popular way of getting to school, I have chosen to focus my thoughts on this mode of transport.

Travelling to school by bus or coach has several benefits so it is easy to see why approximately a third of children do so. There is the economic benefit for the child’s family in not incurring their own fuel costs in driving their child to school plus the obvious time saving for parents not having to drive their child to school. Taking the bus instead of a parent driving their child to school reduces congestion on our roads as well as  pollution. During peak rush hour periods, nearly 20% of cars on the road are engaged in the school run. Also, having a bus timetable to adhere to can help children and their families become more time-efficient and organised.

Arguably, the best reason to take the bus to school is because it is statistically very safe. In 2012 approximately 25,000 pedestrians, 19,000 cyclists and 39,000 car passengers were killed or seriously injured on Great Britain’s roads. Whereas, there were less than 5,000 bus or coach passenger casualties and this figure is decreasing year on year.

Despite the risk of injury in travelling to school by bus being lower than other methods of travel, there are various dangers that children and parents should be aware of .

The walk to the bus stop

Although the bus will take children the majority of the way to school, the journey will often also involve a walk to the bus stop. Simple mistakes such as crossing the road without looking can easily be made whilst rushing to catch the bus.

A third of children injured while crossing the road say that they did not stop before they stepped off the kerb and as many say that they did not look at all. The age of 11 to 12, when children start secondary school, is the peak risk age. New independence means new risks.By the time they reach the age of 13 they have become more aware of hazards and the risk of being involved in an accident reduces.

Parents and children can help prevent accidents by allowing plenty of time to walk to the bus stop in the morning. Also, when crossing roads always choose a safe place to cross, avoid crossing in between parked cars, stop before reaching the kerb, look and listen for traffic, let any traffic pass and when it is safe to do so, go straight across the road and do not run. Parents can also help by setting a good example, supervising the children well and by encouraging them to talk about road safety.

The bus journey

Of course, like every other vehicle on the road, school buses are not impervious to being involved in accidents. Driving a bus full of school children is a huge responsibility for the driver. In the unlikely event of an accident, whether it was caused by the bus driver or the driver of another vehicle, the children on the bus will most likely be innocent victims.

Earlier this month, on 3 June 2014, 28 children were taken to hospital, one with severe injuries, after two school buses crashed head-on in County Durham. Of the children that were hurt, a number suffered broken bones, head and facial injuries, as a result of being thrown forward.

This accident sparked calls from charities and MPs for all school buses to be fitted with seatbelts. 

The law requires all coaches and minibuses carrying groups of children of  3 to 15 years of age on organised trips to be equipped with seatbelts. This requirement does not apply to other types of buses including those on public service. These tend to travel relatively slowly, over short distances, with frequent stops and it is recognised that their design makes it difficult for adequate seatbelts to be fitted retrospectively.

If seat belts are fitted on the bus or coach, they must be worn. Rule 99 of the Highway Code stipulates that adults, and children aged 14 years and over, must wear seatbelts where they are fitted when seated in minibuses, buses and coaches. Bizarrely, the law does not require children under 14 years old to wear a seatbelt on large buses. However,  I would strongly advise all passengers to wear seatbelts or use the correct child seat on all journeys.

Where seatbelts are available, coach drivers have an obligation to notify the passengers that they ought to be worn. Such a notification can be by an official announcement or a prominently displayed sign at each seat fitted with a belt. Once all reasonable steps have been taken the driver will not be expected to supervise children throughout the journey to ensure that they are safely buckled up.

Getting off the bus

Unfortunately we see many cases were children suffer serious injuries while crossing the road  next to a bus. The bus causes an obstruction and prevents the child from being able to clearly see  oncoming traffic.  Often the driver of the car is  unaware of the child’s presence on the road until it’s too late.

An example of this type of accident is illustrated in the 2008 case of Howell-Williams v Richard Brothers and another. This case involved a five-year-old girl who sustained injuries while crossing the road shortly after stepping off a school minibus. Contrary to normal practice the minibus stopped on the near side of the road opposite the girl’s house, meaning that she had to cross the road to get home. As she crossed she was struck by a car. The court found the bus operator to be vicariously liable for the bus driver’s negligence in dropping the girl off in a position of danger without taking steps to protect her. The court also decided that the car driver should have realised that it was a school bus and her failure to reduce her speed and keep a lookout for children stepping out into the road also amounted to negligence. Although in this case, liability for the accident was split two thirds against the bus company and one third against the car driver, the outcome of every individual case will depend on the facts.

This case illustrates the need for parents to, not only make sure their children are aware of the dangers in crossing the road near to a bus, but also to drive slower when passing buses. Rule 205 of the Highway Code highlights the risk of pedestrians, especially children, stepping unexpectedly into the road. Drivers should have the safety of children in mind and travel at a speed suitable for the conditions. More specifically, Rule 206 states that road users should drive carefully and slowly when driving past bus and tram stops, as pedestrians may emerge suddenly into the road.

Furthermore, Rule 207 identifies  children as particularly vulnerable pedestrians who may not be able to judge the  speed of an oncoming car and could step into the road in front of the car. At 40 mph the  vehicle will probably kill any pedestrian it hits. At 20 mph there is only a 1 in 20 chance of the pedestrian being killed. So kill your speed.

Final thought

Seatbelts significantly reduce the risk of suffering serious or fatal injuries in the event of a crash. Following the accident in County Durham earlier this month, I hope that the law will soon require coach and bus passengers under the age of 14 years old to wear a seatbelt and that the issue of responsibility will be clarified.