Proposed bus seatbelt legislation introduced by former Premier Kathleen Wynne could have problems.
Wynne tabled a private member’s bill, that would see school buses outfitted with seatbelts by 2024.
Bill 56, the Keeping Students Safe on School Buses Act was introduced on Thursday in the legislature.
Bus companies would not have to retrofit buses manufactured before 2020 unless they were transporting students longer than 45 minutes to their destination one way, or students were being transported on any provincial highway.
Wynne said she created the bill after seeing a Fifth Estate report on CBC showing an updated safety test by Transport Canada in 2010 that included side-impact collisions. In those situations, it was determined a child would be safer if they were belted in, as side-impact crashes proved to be catastrophic for unbelted passengers.
Scott Hammond is the Director of Operations for Bracebridge-based Hammond Transportation. He says he is all for making buses safer for children but says there are a number of issues to be considered with such legislation.
His first concern is the feasibility of getting small children on board and belted in without having to essentially park the bus in live traffic while a driver assists the child.
“I get two three-year-olds that get on with their (backpack), they have snow pants, they have a hood,” Hammond explains. “The (kids) are going to look at me as the driver and say ‘Here I am, get me in my seatbelt’.”
He says the knock-on effect would be much longer transit times and impatient drivers potentially passing dangerously to get ahead of the bus.
Another issue, he explains, is what would the liability be for the driver. Under current laws, a driver would be responsible if a child under 16 was not wearing their seatbelt. The driver is busy driving, and not able to monitor if kids are complying with seatbelt use.
Hammond predicts that there might be a severe driver shortage if that kind of liability comes with a minimum wage job.
That may mean each bus has to have an onboard assistant to monitor and help the kids getting in and out of their belts.
Bob Nichols, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario agrees.
In a statement, Nichols says, “ministry staff will analyze it to determine how it can be implemented and will look at such issues as driver responsibility and costs to industry.”
Also in the case of an emergency, a driver would have to possibly help unbelt a number of children to evacuate a bus.
“You can’t just say let’s put seatbelts on buses by 2025 and it’ll all be better for the kids,” says Hammond.
Another issue would deal with passenger capacity on buses with seatbelts.
Currently, full-size buses, known as 72 passenger units, are so designated because you can potentially fit three kids to a seat if they are from JK to second grade. Seats would only have two seatbelts, so capacity would have to be restricted when carrying large numbers of younger children, down to approximately 48.
“I’m not saying it’s not going to be safer for kids,” stresses Hammond. “But what I am saying is I think there is a lot of issues, a lot of circumstances, a lot of information and situations that have to be explored in detail to make sure indeed the result is what we want.”
Because the legislation is not looking to ask operators to retrofit equipment the issue of cost does not enter the conversation in the ordering of new buses he says. It is about operational realities and the day to day of operating under the proposed new regulations.
Nichols says the ultimate decision does not belong to the province, but rather Transport Canada, which is responsible for setting the safety requirements for new vehicles and to determine which vehicles are required to be equipped with seatbelts.