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Traffic and road safety in Hong Kong

Hong Kong school buses must have seat belts, transport officials need to rethink ‘safer seats’ policy

  • The Transport Department’s decision to solely rely on the design of so-called ‘safer seats’ to protect schoolchildren in the event of a collision must be reviewed
PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 11:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 11:00am

David Passow last week (“Buses without seat belts must come off road”, December 19) and other correspondents over the years have asked: why can’t there be seat belts on all buses, especially those that ferry children?

It was a conscious decision made by the Transport Department not to install seat belts on school buses. Instead, as of May 2009, the department requires all registered student service services to be fitted with what are known as “safer seats”.

In a letter issued this year to schools, the department said: “Safer seats are strong and closely spaced, with high and energy-absorbing backs, which can reduce the risk of students being thrown out of their seats and reduce the degree of injury in case of collisions. Overseas research proves that the use

of safer seats is effective in protecting students on student service vehicles. Compared with seat belts, safer seats offer protection to passengers without requiring any action, thus they are suitable to be used on student service vehicles.”

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However, the department still allows three young children to sit on two seats: the middle child has no protection. In effect, the department gave up on educating students to use seat belts.

Despite backing the use of safer seats, the department nonetheless did not follow up with the other requirements that went with safer seats: enhanced structural strengthening of school buses, driver assessments, and random drug and alcohol testing. And why install a hard plastic handhold on the rear of the seat, as it negates the energy-absorbing material?

Until most recently, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only required school buses to have safer seats and did not require seat belts. But in May this year, after concluding an investigation into two deadly school bus crashes in 2016, one in Baltimore City, Maryland, and one in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended for the first time that all new school buses be fitted with seat belts. Following the new recommendation, the NHTSA said it would study the use of seat belts and review its own guidelines.

The decision by Hong Kong’s Transport Department is flawed, in that, apart from safer seats, no other safety feature was required. In a side-impact collision, each child will be hurled into the child sitting next to them, roll around the cabin and, should the bus flip over, children will be ejected through shattered windows. Even in a simple head-to-tail collision, the children risk split lips and bruised heads (on the hard hand rails).

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Prevention of injury or worse is simple: install three-point seat belts on school buses. And go one step further: install a speed governor limiting the speed of school buses to 80km/h, collision avoidance systems, automatic emergency braking systems, an in-vehicle camera to record driving manner and student behaviour, and a black box; these must be standard requirements.

Numerous bus accidents this year clearly indicated that not wearing a seat belt can be fatal. The Transport Department must review its decision which puts our children at risk, install seat belts and other safety equipment, and not take the easy option. Begin education of road users while they are young and wearing seat belts will become second nature, one that may well save their lives in the future.

Neil Dunn, Kowloon Tong