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Taking seatbelt action

WITH the school year about to begin – and thousands of rural children again riding in school buses daily on a hotch-potch of roads – their parents are determined to make seatbelts a State election issue.

For more than a decade, rural parent groups have been lobbying to make seatbelts compulsory in school buses.

And perhaps – just perhaps – this time around, complaints to a cash-strapped State Labor Government (and an eager Opposition) may not fall on deaf ears.

Typically, South Coast’s Belt Up for Safety (BUS) Action Group is happy to up the political ante.

Group spokeswoman, Glenda Staniford, Fern Gully Winery, Termeil, said last week she was hopeful seatbelt legislation was only months away.

Mrs Staniford said she was working with local MP, Joanna Gash, to develop laws mandating seatbelts for all high-speed school buses – those travelling at more than 80 kilometres an hour – a move that also had the support of influential federal independent MPs, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

“That’s the minimum standard that should already be happening,” she said.

“We just need to phase it in on new and replacement buses.”

Ms Staniford said in 2007 the Howard Government had offered $40 million to encourage the installation of seatbelts on school buses.

Under this voluntary scheme, bus companies could apply for Seat Belts For Kids subsidies of up to $25,000 a bus to install lap/sash seatbelts that met federal and State standards.

(A spokesman from Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, said so far about $17.1 million had been spent helping 113 bus companies retro-fit 217 buses and the program would continue until funds were exhausted.)

Mrs Staniford said parent groups were now focused on having the restraints made compulsory.

And because regulation of school bus seatbelts fell under the State Government’s jurisdiction, the issue would be raised as the March State election neared, with an emphasis on lobbying candidates for marginal seats.

Mrs Staniford said eliminating the practise of having students standing while travelling on buses was a particular problem.

“We’re the only State not to have done (eliminate) it,” she said.

Bus NSW executive director, Darryl Mellish, who represents the bus and coach sector, said operators were not opposed to mandatory seatbelts, and welcomed community debate on the issue.

But introducing seat belts universally would mean contracts for school bus runs would need to be re-negotiated because bus capacities would change.

“We’re aware of the emotive issue – we feel we’re the meat in the sandwich,” he said.

“Parents want seatbelts, but the government needs to back that with funds.”

Mr Mellish said bus operators across the State now ran vehicles that adhered to government standards, and if these standards changed, the operators would make the adjustment.

However, the analysis had found buses were “very safe” in transporting students, said Mr Mellish.

A spokesman for NSW Transport Minister, John Robertson, said Transport NSW was now assessing more than 3000 individual rural and regional school bus routes across the State.

“The Government is looking at individual local routes to see what should be done,” he said.

“Risk factors include a range of road, traffic and climate conditions, including speed limits, road design and curvature, or the presence of heavy vehicle traffic.”

The spokesman said strategies which might be implemented included reducing travel speeds, changing routes, providing additional training for drivers, or, where appropriate, installing seatbelts.

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