A whole new safety view to sell us

Strangely, there hasn’t been the buzz and kind of spirited public debate we expected out of Minister of Culture Stephen Lashley’s stated wish in Parliament that our public service vehicles be made to carry safety seat belts. It is as if there was tacit agreement that the quieter we remain on his “mandatory” suggestion, the sooner it might go away.

Actually, it is not a novel idea. Public service vehicles in some parts of the United States, Britain, Europe and Australia are thus fitted with seat belts “for the general safety of passengers” and “for the restraint of children”, particularly on the school buses, in case there is a high-speed crash, or the simple sudden braking of the vehicle for whatever necessary reason.

One may imagine schoolchildren being thrown around or being propelled against one another in such a circumstance, and the resultant injury.

We will have to concede, though, that in Barbados such incidents have been few and far between, with apprehension and unease only being raised by the very recent spate of bus accidents and injuries on our roads. And such general infrequency of bus crashes has given cause for opposition to seat-belted PSVs in other jurisdictions.

One argument has been that general passengers and students travelling by bus –– without seat belts –– were significantly safer than those who went by car anyway (with or without seat belts). One explanation presented for such “safety” was the compartmentalization of the vehicle –– the Transport Board type, in particular. Seats are set close to each other and have high backs, which are generally padded.

The no-bus-seat-belt proponents argue that in an “unlikely” accident the student would be propelled an extremely short distance into a somewhat cushioned seat back, in a situation akin to being confronted by the earlier version of an airbag. Furthermore, they posit that passengers sit high off the ground in buses like our Transport Board editions, which adds to their safety, since any crash impact with “the less safe” car would happen “beneath
the bus seats”.

In a distorted way, such seat belt adversaries in the United States conclude that the safety contraptions do not make school buses safer –– given that there are “only a handful of deaths occurring to passengers on school buses [without sea belts] every year”, compared with the 40 times more danger, mayhem and death caused by car driving.

Even so, in our part of the world, a single death –– by car or bus –– is one too many, and we can’t but share Minister Lashley’s deep-seated concern for the good of public transportation. With the increased tragedy on our roads of late, it would be incongruous of the Government, having advocated and promoted travel safety and buckling up by car on one hand, now to be oblivious to transport security on the other, where commuters, including schoolchildren, move around in greater numbers in any one trip and on much larger vehicles that are non-compliant with seat belt safety standards.

We are not unmindful, though, of the expense bus owners would be forced to incur in the implementation of Mr Lashley’s wished for seat belt measures, nor the resultant angst of those firm in the belief these extra costs would contribute nothing materially to the reduction of road injuries or
deaths by the bus.

Some of the more amenable bus owners might seek to solicit from the Government some sort of subsidy to retrofit their buses with these mandatory seat belts –– a request from a Government that will have its own financial burden dealing with its large fleet at the Transport Board.

The challenges for Mr Lashley and Cabinet would be far from small, and farther from being a cakewalk.

There may be need for a transitional period of retrofitting of buses currently on the road, while there is an understanding that no new buses sans seat belts will be allowed. This will call for monitoring.

And a public awareness campaign for passengers will have to be pursued, and commuters sold the concept that without wearing a seat belt they put themselves and other occupants of public transport at risk. Buses will again require two staff: one to drive, the other to advise, check and ensure passengers are complying with the new seat belt law –– if public safety by bus is to mean anything.

And what happens when a passenger refuses to wear the seat belt on the bus? What will the law permit driver and conductor to do? It is one thing to explain the risks to a stubborn commuter; quite another to deny him transportation if he refuses to wear that seat belt.

Happily, standing in the bus aisle would come to a glorious end –– if Mr Lashley could only get his way with these seat belts. Few worthy things come without their challenges, and effort –– and pain.

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