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COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
REPORT ON THE INQUIRY INTO
VOLUME 1 - REPORT AND MINUTES OF PROCEEDINGS RELATING TO THE REPORT
The Committee for the Environment is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the NI Act 1998 and under Assembly Standing Order 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Minister of the Environment and has a role in the initiation of legislation.
The Committee has power to:
The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson with a quorum of five. The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:
Dr William McCrea Chairperson
* Mr David McClarty replaced Mr Tom Hamilton on 26 February 2001, who had previously replaced Mr Tom Benson on 29 January 2001. Mr Benson died on 24 December 2000.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
VOLUME 1 - REPORT AND PROCEEDINGS OF THE COMMITTEE
Committee for the Environment - Powers and Membership 3
Background to the Report
Consideration of Evidence
Appendix 1. - Minutes of the Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report 37
Appendix 2. - List of Witnesses who gave oral evidence to the Committee 91
VOLUME 2 - MINUTES OF EVIDENCE AND WRITTEN SUBMISSIONS,
Appendix 3 - Minutes of Evidence
Appendix 4 - Written Submissions to the Committee from those who gave oral evidence (Printed)
Appendix 5 - List of other Written Submissions to the Committee from those
who did not give
THE '3 FOR 2' SEATING PROVISION
1. The Committee recommends that the '3 for 2' capacity concession operated by the Education and Library Boards (the Boards) and Translink should be abolished for all children. The Committee did recognise that the quickest means of achieving this is for all Boards to specify 'one for one' seating in all contracts, and on their own vehicles, and therefore all Boards should adopt this policy and implement in all new contracts. While the legislation will not require immediate amendment, carriage of pupils in excess of seating capacity should only be allowable in exceptional circumstances, to be set out in a revised circular from the Department of Education. In due course, abolition of the '3 for 2' seating rule should be reflected in amended legislation. A Regulatory Impact Assessment should be carried out by the Department of the Environment to evaluate the potential costs and likely benefits of making the proposed change (Section 2, paragraph 2.4.10).
SCHOOL CHILDREN STANDING ON BUSES
2. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should specify in all contracts that every child who is entitled to transport is provided with a seat. This should apply to their own transport, as well as to contract transport and to pass-holders on stage carriage services. The Boards and Schools should also apply this to any organised school trips, regardless of whether buses or coaches are deployed. In the case of non-entitled children, Translink and any other stage carriage operators should identify instances where they stand for longer than the operator's quality standard and take measures to prevent this recurring. This should be reported on through the new incident reporting system. (Section 2, paragraph 2.5.6)
3. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should require Translink to ensure that their journey planning system provides every pass-holder with a seat on a specified bus, even where this involves a stage carriage service. (Section 2, paragraph 2.5.8)
4. The Committee recommends that the Department of the Environment, as a matter of urgency, should carry out a Regulatory Impact Assessment on the effect of a similar change (as in Recommendation 3 above) in the policy for standing for non-entitled school children. (Section 2, paragraph 2.5.9)
5. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should progressively require the provision of lap-and-diagonal seat belts for all school children on both contract services and those vehicles on scheduled services provided by Translink, primarily for the carriage of school children, and on their own buses. The Boards should prepare a programme, in consultation with the Department of Education, outlining the shortest realistic timetable for full implementation of this requirement, taking into account the vehicle replacement requirements, for presentation to this Committee within six months (Section 2, paragraph 2.7.5).
6. The Committee recommends that the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, in representing the UK, should propose that the EU pursue the concept of requiring seat belts to be installed in all buses, including those used for school transport and stage carriage services (Section 2, paragraph 2.7.5).
7. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should determine and apply a phasing in programme with three time horizons reflecting priorities for the fitting of seat belts to vehicles (including their own), viz:
8. The Committee recommends that the Department of Education and Department of the Environment, in conjunction with vehicle manufacturers and operators, should develop as rapidly as possible a technical specification for an illuminated school bus sign, to provide significantly more visible impact than the current prescribed school bus signs, and which:
The provision and deployment of this sign would be mandatory on all vehicles used specifically to carry children to and from school at any time, and on stage carriage vehicles where 'significant' numbers of school children are being carried. It would be an offence to deploy this sign except when, or immediately before or after, the vehicle is stopped to allow school children to board or alight (Section 2, paragraph 2.8.6).
9. The Committee recommends that it is compulsory for hazard warning lights to be fitted to the front and rear and as near to roof level as possible, on all buses/coaches transporting school children and operated for all boarding and alighting in conjunction with the signs specified in recommendation 8 (Section 2, paragraph 2.9.1).
LEGISLATION GOVERNING THE USE OF MINIBUSES/COACHES ON ORGANISED TRIPS
10. The Committee recommends that Education and Library Boards and individual schools should ensure that children on organised school trips must travel on vehicles fitted with seat belts, with a seat for every child, and that this should be supported by guidance from the Department of Education (Section 2, paragraph 2.10.1).
CONSOLIDATION OF THE LEGISLATION
11. The Committee recommends that legislation should be consolidated (Section 2, paragraph 2.11.1).
THE YELLOW SCHOOL BUS SYSTEM
12. The Committee recommends that Department of Education and Department for Regional Development should urgently commission a study to identify the advantages and disadvantages of a dedicated and segregated school bus system (as in the U.S. 'Yellow Buses') from the points of view of:
The study should involve a programme of pilots involving both rural / urban and primary / secondary examples, and should consider alternatives such as:
The study should also assess the possible impact of dedicated school buses on subsequent public bus service use by children, and on their road traffic awareness (Section 2, paragraph 2.12.3).
ARRANGEMENTS FOR GETTING ON AND OFF BUSES
13. The Committee recommends that the Department of the Environment should undertake urgent research into the potential for new legislation in respect of other road traffic passing vehicles which have school bus signs deployed. This should examine the potential for:
and should consider the experience of other countries in this regard. The DoE should report back to this Committee as soon as practicable (Section 2, paragraph 2.13.4).
14. The Committee recommends that the Department of the Environment and Department of Education should develop and publish a Good Practice Guide in respect of Risk Assessment surrounding boarding and alighting at or by school premises, including coverage of:
(Section 2, paragraph 2.13.6).
IMPROVED MEANS OF COMMUNICATION FOR BUS/COACH/taxi DRIVERS
15. The Committee recommends that all drivers of buses/coaches or taxis transporting children to and from school are provided with a means of communicating from the vehicle with their depots, the incident 'hotline', the police and other emergency services (Section 2, paragraph 2.14.1).
BEHAVIOUR AND VANDALISM ISSUES
16. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards and Translink should undertake a specific investigation of the factors that contribute towards vandalism, bullying and misbehaviour on buses, with a view to applying appropriate Action Plan measures as rapidly as possible (Section 2, paragraph 2.15.1).
STORAGE OF EQUIPMENT / BAGGAGE
17. The Committee recommends that Education and Library Boards, Schools, Translink and other main transport providers should review the nature and amount of baggage and equipment which children carry to and from school on buses/coaches, with the aim of reducing the amount carried (e.g. extension of secure storage facilities and their use in schools), and ensuring the provision and use of appropriate storage inside buses/coaches such that:
18. The Committee recommends that the Department of Education should provide general guidance in respect of appropriate baggage allowances for travel on vehicles. The Boards should use this to specify the appropriate storage arrangements in their contracts with providers, enhanced, where necessary, in relation to specific schools or specific routes. Translink should use this guidance in respect of stage carriage services which carry a significant number of children to and from school (Section 2, paragraph 2.16.3).
IMPROVED LIAISON BETWEEN SCHOOLS AND TRANSPORT PROVIDERS/THE BUS PASS SYSTEM
19. The Committee recommends that Boards should establish a formal reporting system for accidents and incidents involving overcrowding, indiscipline or other matters affecting safety, and that the Department of the Environment, Department of Education, Department for Regional Development, RUC, the Boards, Schools and Colleges, and main transport providers should establish appropriate liaison arrangements for dealing with reports received under this system. Use of this system should be required for all contractors, and reinforced by an appropriate penalty system if not used. It should also apply to the Boards' own operations, and Translink and other transport providers should apply it in respect of stage carriage services and non-entitled children. Schools and Colleges should be recommended to use this system. The Boards should be required to publish an annual analysis of reports received, which should be considered by the DE and, where appropriate, updated guidance issued. (Section 2, paragraphs 2.17.1)
20. The Committee also recommends that the Education and Library Boards should establish and publicise a telephone 'hotline' to deal with school transport incidents or complaints as they occur. This facility should be staffed to cover the times between the earliest vehicle starting out and the last scheduled drop off time (Section 2, paragraph 2.17.2).
21. The Committee recommends that Translink should be required to plan that sufficient stage carriage service buses should provide a seat for all school children with a pass to travel. (Section 2, paragraph 2.17.3)
22. The Committee recommends that consideration should be given to issuing specific passes for specific buses, so that the demand for transport is spread more evenly across the available vehicles. (Section 2, paragraph 2.17.3)
23. The Committee recommends that:
ROAD SAFETY EDUCATION
24. The Committee recommends that the implementation of measures contained in this report should be linked to the development and delivery of a new/enhanced Road Safety Education programme (developed within the 'Safer Routes to Schools' programme) to:
This campaign should involve all parties identified as having a role to play in this report, including the Boards and Schools, the Department of the Environment, the RUC and main transport providers. DoE should also establish an education and awareness programme targeted at parents and children to enhance the wearing of seat belts, extending the current campaign which particularly targets people in the 16-24 age groups. (Section 2, paragraph 2.18.1)
25. The Committee recommends that the early gritting of roads on school bus routes, even where these do not meet general criteria for treatment, must be a Roads Service priority. (Section 2, paragraph 2.19.1)
MONITORING OF INSURANCE COVER FOR AND ACCIDENTS INVOLVING TAXIS USED IN SCHOOL TRANSPORT
26. The Committee recommends that those recommendations contained in the 'Home to School Transport, Fundamental Service Review' Report in relation to taxis, should be followed up and implemented as soon as possible by all Education and Library Boards. (Section 2, paragraph 2.21.12)
27. The Committee recommends that each Education and Library Board, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment's Transport Licensing and Enforcement Branch, should instigate a rolling programme of active school transport monitoring, based on an adequate sample, to cover both safety and quality aspects of journeys. This will require liaison with and guidance with other agencies, including schools and colleges. The results should be published annually. (Section 2, paragraph 2.21.13)
28. The Committee recommends that:
The DoE should undertake an annual analysis of accident statistics relating to the home to school journey which includes accidents by mode and accidents by estimated modal mileage and should report the results to this Committee. (Section 2, paragraph 2.22.2)
1.1 Background to the Report
1.1.1 The Environment Committee first raised the safety issue of children travelling to and from school with the Department of the Environment at a Committee meeting on 27 January 2000. At the meeting Members raised concerns about the overcrowding of buses used to take children to and from school. The Committee again looked at the issue at their meeting on 10 February 2000 on receipt of a report from the Department. This report outlined that under the legislation 101 children, under the age of 14 years, could travel on a 53-seater bus. The Department was advised that the Committee still had serious concerns about the overcrowding of school buses.
1.1.2 On 8 June 2000, the Committee again discussed its concerns about overcrowding on school buses. It was agreed that because of the seriousness of the issue, it should be examined as the Committee's first Public Inquiry.
1.2 Terms of Reference
1.2.1 The terms of reference agreed for the Inquiry were-
1.3 The Committee's Approach
1.3.1 The Committee decided that the Inquiry should reach as many interested groups as possible so that it would be able to consider fully all the viewpoints and aspects relevant to it. In addition to placing public notices in the three main newspapers announcing its Inquiry, the Committee wrote to 69 groups/organisations with an interest in this area asking if they wished to submit written evidence
1.3.2 The Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to this Report are set out in Appendix 1. A full list of witnesses who gave oral evidence is contained in Appendix 2. Minutes of Evidence transcripts of these sessions are contained in Volume 2 of this Report at Appendix 3. The Written Submissions of those who gave oral evidence to the Committee and those who did not give oral evidence are contained in Appendix 4 and 5 respectively of Volume 2 of this Report.
1.3.3 The Committee was also pleased to receive letters from a number of concerned parents and schools. In total the Committee received 57 written representations. Oral evidence was taken from 13 groups, including the Department of the Environment, Department for Regional Development and Department of Education; the service providers - Translink and the Northern Ireland Private Coach Operators; schools and groups representing the interests of children and parents such as the Federation of Women's Institutes.
1.4 Key Issues Considered
1.5 School Children with Disabilities
While the needs of school children with disabilities were not specifically addressed within the terms of this Inquiry, the Committee would emphasise that all of its recommendations apply equally to all children travelling to school. It is recognised that special arrangements are often made for children with disabilities, for example, in the use of taxis and specially adapted buses, and the relevant recommendations in this Report must be applied to ensure a safe, comfortable and adequate form of transport to meet all needs.
1.6.1 The Committee would like to thank all those who contributed to its Inquiry through written and oral evidence. This participation enabled the Committee to look in detail at all aspects of the issues of concern and to hear a wide range of views.
1.6.2 In particular, the Committee would like to thank the Federation of Women's Institute which has long campaigned to have changes made to the transport arrangements for school children and which carried out a wide range of research across a number of countries.
1.6.3 The Committee expresses its thanks to the Specialist Advisors from TAS Partnership Ltd for the significant contribution they made to the Inquiry.
2.1 After considering the evidence before it, the Committee addressed the main issues arising from the terms of reference as follows.
2.1.1 There are some 350,000 school children in Northern Ireland, of whom nearly one-third are entitled to provision of home-to-school transport by the appropriate Education and Library Board. The non-entitled majority use a variety of forms of transport, including walking, private cars and travelling as fare-paying passengers on stage carriage Ulsterbus and Citybus services. The Committee wishes to ensure and enhance the safety of all school children, but also recognises the need to encourage greater usage of modes which are more sustainable, environmentally friendly and enjoy the best safety record. These aims have been considered in formulating the Committee's recommendations.
2.1.2 In assessing the evidence presented, the Committee has been aware of the concept of the 'duty of care' owed to school children, and shared by Government Departments, transport operators, the Boards and schools. It accepts the principle that an appropriate test of this duty of care is that of a 'reasonable parent', which extends beyond what can be achieved by legislative requirements alone. Proper exercise of the duty of care requires appropriate assessment of risks, based on facts rather than perceptions, and will change over time, with technical progress and the changing climate of expectations. The Committee has sought to challenge the standards currently applied to this duty, some of which date from very different circumstances, in a present day context.
2.2 The Legislative Framework
2.2.1 The requirements for the regulation of vehicles used to transport passengers in Northern Ireland and for the licensing of operators of such vehicles are established by the Transport Act (NI) 1967 and the Road Traffic (NI) Orders 1981 and 1995 and, amongst others, the following regulations -
The Regulations include standards for vehicle and equipment construction, as well as driver licensing and bus and coach operator competence, that implement European Directives. The regulatory framework reflects equivalent legislation in Great Britain.
2.2.2 The Committee sought views on what changes, if any, should be made to the current legislation - including amending the legislation to restrict the number of school children allowed to travel on buses, and the way in which they are carried. The Committee examined this issue in considerable detail. In its submission to the Committee, the DoE stated that buses remain a relatively safe form of transport and considered that it is difficult to demonstrate that significant road safety benefits would accrue from changing the Regulations.
2.2.3 However, the statistics set out below were provided to the Committee by the RUC:
COLLISION STATISTICS 1995-1999: CHILDREN UNDER 16 YEARS TRAVELLING TO AND FROM SCHOOL
* Injuries include slight and serious
** Buses include minibuses
In summary, during the last 5 years, 413 children were injured whilst travelling to or from school by bus. In comparison for the same period one child was killed and 488 injured, 313 of which were rear seat passengers, travelling by car. Analysis of statistics identifies that of those children killed and injured in cars 44 were not wearing seatbelts. These were the only accident statistics presented to the Committee specifically relating to the school journey, and they offer a contrast to the statistics presented by the DoE in respect of the number of road traffic casualties involving children under 16 years of age in Northern Ireland by different modes. The Committee is aware of the need for care when interpreting the above statistics:
Nevertheless, the Committee has serious concerns with the high numbers of children injured in what the DoE consider as 'a relatively safe form of transport'.
2.2.4 Although the Committee's Terms of Reference extended only to the carriage of school children, it is recognised that the safety regulation function of the DoE covers all passengers on public transport, including adults. The Committee has therefore considered whether any differentiation in standards between school children and other (adult) passengers is compatible with the requirement for open examination of equality provisions under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is satisfied that this requirement is fulfilled. The Committee also recognises that some recommendations may have policy and financial implications for other Government Departments towards the provision and operation of public transport services, but considers that it should not be constrained in making recommendations it considers necessary to address the safety of school children by any matters which fall within the remit of other Committees of the Assembly.
2.3 Maximum Number of Children Permitted Under The Legislation
Under current legislation it is legal for up to 101 children, under 14 years of age, to travel on a 53-seater bus. DoE explained in its submission that the maximum capacity is calculated on the basis of counting 3 children under the age of 14 for every 2 seats (the '3 for 2' rule) giving a maximum number of 79 seated passengers plus an additional maximum of 22 standing passengers. The DoE officials advised the Committee that some aspects of the Regulations date from 1927.
2.4 The Use of '3 for 2' Provision
2.4.1 The '3 for 2' arrangement is a provision of the Regulations governing Public Service Vehicles and applies only when seat belts are not fitted.
2.4.2 The General Consumer Council pointed out in its submission that research shows that teenagers today are physically larger than earlier generations- that is, the data demonstrates that young people in Northern Ireland have become significantly taller and heavier. This casts serious doubt over whether there is sufficient room on a seat for three children - three children on a seat measuring 37 inches allows just over 12 inches of room per child. The Committee considers that this does not provide a safe and comfortable environment for travel to and from school.
2.4.3 Many of those who gave evidence to the Committee expressed concern about what they regarded as outdated legislation. The Ulster Teachers Union said in its written submission that it is not a safe practice having nearly double the amount of children on a bus than there are seats for adults. All Translink buses used to transport children to and from school can utilise the '3 for 2' provision. This includes the vast majority of school children travelling to and from school on Translink scheduled or stage carriage services - mainly Ulsterbus. Translink, in its submission, stated that allegations of overcrowding were invariably unfounded when measured against the legal limit for the vehicle. Indeed, Translink advised the Committee that it is not its policy to make use of the '3 for 2' provision within the Regulations to any significant degree, stating that it operated a voluntary planned maximum of 75 (i.e. 53 seated plus 22 standing). Nevertheless the bus drivers are aware of the rule and this gives them the margin they require on a day to day basis to pick up a number of children travelling to school, otherwise they may have to be left at the roadside or at bus stations. Translink's internal guidelines insist that when numbers exceed 75 pupils per bus (regardless of age), their District Managers should seek an alternative solution, for example, managers may opt to re-organise services arranging for some children to go on a different bus or the provision of an additional vehicle.
2.4.4 The Committee accepts that in most instances the bus drivers are acting in good faith in allowing children on to the bus and acknowledges that they are working within the law. However, questions arose again and again from witnesses and within written submissions about how a driver can assess the age of the children as they board the bus; how he/she can keep a count of the number on the bus; the sheer difficulty in fitting a large number of children on the bus along with their baggage; how much distraction this must cause in trying to drive the bus and the contribution that this overcrowding makes to misbehaviour on buses. It is clear from the evidence that significant use of '3 for 2' is occurring on a regular basis on Translink vehicles.
2.4.5 The Education and Library Boards' policy with their own buses is to prohibit standing but to allow for '3 for 2' and therefore their 53 seater buses can carry a maximum of 79 seated pupils (if all are under 14 years of age). All private bus operators contracted by the Boards are not permitted to use the '3 for 2' seating concession. Thus on the three main systems used to provide transport to pupils who are statutorily entitled to this, we have:
This suggests that pupils are facing different levels of risk on their home to school journey depending upon which system they have provided for them.
2.4.6 The Construction and Use Regulations require 'that passengers must be carried in such a manner as to ensure that no danger is caused or likely to be caused to a person in or on the vehicle or on the road'. There is specific reference to the number of passengers carried and the manner in which such passengers are carried. This provision applies to all buses - Public Service Vehicles, as well as small and large buses operating under the Bus Permits Scheme (for operators operating for reward on a not-for-profit basis) and large private passenger-carrying vehicles. The Committee does not consider that the current arrangements comply with either the letter or the spirit of these Regulations.
2.4.7 Translink representatives did point out that they are merely service providers and that it is the Boards which specify the level of service that they require. The Committee accepts this in the context of the limited service Translink provide under 'contract services' but cannot accept this in relation to the vast majority of school children carried on Translink's stage carriage services. Translink also pointed out that it is not responsible for the Regulations regarding the number of children that may be carried on a bus. Translink, which carries some 67,500 children to school every day, quoted 'that only on very rare and isolated occasions has it been necessary to use the full legal permitted capacity' (Translink Connect, Feb 2001). Translink also said that when such situations are identified, immediate or early action is taken to adjust service arrangements.
2.4.8 The Boards' own buses utilise the '3 for 2' provision on their 25, 33 and 53 seater buses bringing the maximum numbers of under 14 year old pupils carried to 37, 49 and 79 respectively. The Boards would accept that safety would be enhanced if each child was provided with a seat and no standing passengers were permitted - a point with which the RUC and virtually all other witnesses agreed. However, the Boards did point to substantially increased costs of providing additional transport to ensure one seat per child. In addition, a significant number of school children, who currently benefit from a concessionary seat on a Board bus or a 'contract bus', would lose their seat. The Committee was informed that of the 16,000 children conveyed in WE & LB everyday on Board vehicles some 3,500 to 4,000 occupied concessionary seats - mostly primary school children:-although this is a significantly higher proportion than in any other Board area. It was not clear to the Committee why the Boards, which can regulate the way in which children are carried to and from school through their contractual arrangements (including the contractual purchase of sessional tickets from Translink), had not previously addressed this issue, and made no reference to this option in their formal submission nor in their two appearances before the Committee. This is particularly surprising in that the majority of education authorities in Great Britain have phased out the use of the 3 for 2 provision in their school transport contracts.
2.4.9 The Department for Regional Development, which is responsible for public transport policy and is the sponsor of Translink, said in its submission that if '3 for 2' was abolished the impact is unlikely to affect the normal operation of Translink services, as these are planned to take account of the maximum adult carrying capacity of the vehicles in use. However, DRD did point out that its abolition could give rise to problems coping with unexpected or short-term extra demand. DRD said that the '3 for 2' rule is used on less than 3% of journeys taking children to and from school.
2.4.10 The Committee, having considered all the evidence provided, recommends that the '3 for 2' capacity concession operated by the Boards and Translink should be abolished for all children. The Committee did recognise that the quickest means of achieving this is for all the Boards to specify 'one for one' seating in all contracts, and on their own vehicles, and therefore all Boards should adopt this policy and implement in all new contracts. While the legislation will not require immediate amendment, carriage of pupils in excess of seating capacity should only be allowable in exceptional circumstances, to be set out in a revised circular from the Department of Education. In due course, abolition of the '3 for 2' seating rule should be reflected in amended legislation. A Regulatory Impact Assessment would be required to be undertaken by Department of the Environment to evaluate the potential costs and the likely benefits of making the proposed change. The Committee considers that the '3 for 2' concession is no longer appropriate in the 21st Century and would stress that this recommendation should be implemented immediately as a new safety requirement. Furthermore, the Committee would stress that its implementation (as with the implementation of any of the other recommendations in this report) should impact as little as possible on the current level of concessionary seats 'awarded' on Board buses and 'contract buses'. The DE, DoE and DRD should co-operate, within the framework of the 'Safer Routes to Schools' initiative, to implement measures to enable and encourage more use of buses for the home to school journey by children who are not entitled to Board provision. As with a number of other recommendations in this Report, a programme of implementation should be agreed with service providers as soon as possible with priority given in this case to rural services to secondary schools.
2.4.11 There would remain a need to retain some flexibility on scheduled stage carriage services to avoid children being left at the roadside if unexpected loadings occurred, and this could be extended to extremely exceptional use on Board owned large buses. The use of the concession would be strictly confined to occasions when school children would be left behind because all the seats on the bus were occupied and they would have to wait on the roadside or at a bus station for a considerable time. The use of the concession would be restricted to unforeseen circumstances when school or public demands for seats on buses temporarily arise. The Board's policy and contracts with transport providers should stipulate that should the excess capacity concession be used on more than three occasions in any same school term on any one bus route, the transport provider along with the relevant school(s) and area Board should urgently review the circumstances, with the view of eliminating the use of this concession as soon as possible, for example by re-scheduling services or improving communication between the school and transport provider. This will require a contractual requirement for operators to report such occurrences to the Boards and relevant schools, but will also be monitored through other arrangements, to be considered later in this report. The outcome may be that the transport provider is required to re-schedule services on a particular route(s) or provide an additional bus(es). Summary reports of such cases, with a record of action taken and the results, would be forwarded monthly by the Boards to DoE Road Safety Division, which would be responsible for closely monitoring and reviewing as necessary the overall use of the concession. The ultimate objective of DoE, the Boards, the schools and all concerned, would be to eliminate use of the concession - it may however be necessary to adopt the short-term objective of minimising its use to extremely exceptional occasions.
2.5 School Children Standing on Buses
2.5.1 One of the most frequent and strongest concerns raised in the submissions to and oral evidence taken on this Inquiry was the practice of allowing school children to stand on buses. This was considered by many to be a very dangerous practice with the serious risk of injury in the event of an accident or should the bus have to brake sharply.
2.5.2 The Boards prohibit standing on all their own minibuses and buses and with all their contracts with private bus operators. The Committee is concerned however that there are no legislative restrictions on the number of passengers that can be carried on the Board large passenger carrying vehicles. The vast majority of home to school transport provided by Translink (some 67,500 children per day) is by their scheduled stage carriage services which on 53 seater buses allows a maximum of 22 passengers to stand. This reflects the legislation pertaining to public transport services i.e. a voluntary maximum of 75 that includes up to 22 standing and this can be increased to 101 if the 3 for 2 concession is fully utilised.
2.5.3 The current Translink 'Passenger's Charter' prescribes the following level of service:
'On buses nobody should have to stand on any off-peak service, or stand for more than fifteen minutes normal journey time at peak times.'
This is described as 'the standards of service we will provide.' Yet the submissions to the Inquiry from a number of schools state otherwise e.g. School Principals from Limavady advised that some buses would regularly carry over 80 pupils with many standing the entire 18 miles from Strathfoyle to Limavady. In wider terms, the Committee also feels that such uncomfortable travelling conditions, and the treatment of school children as 'second class passengers', cannot encourage their continued use of buses once they have the choice of other modes even before they have left school.
2.5.4 The Committee learnt that where buses are specifically contracted, the Boards' policy is to have no-one standing. However, on many of Translink's 'scheduled service buses', specifically put on to only carry school children, it can be planned to allow up to 22 passengers standing. It is on these buses that many incidents of overcrowding occur and standing is reported to be a regular feature.21 This was confirmed by many of the witnesses before the Committee and by most of written submissions to this Inquiry. Indeed, Translink's planned practice of transporting children on scheduled services in this way places more reliance on the legality of the position than on a reasonable and objective assessment of their 'duty of care'.
2.5.5 As already indicated many of those who gave evidence to the Committee raised particular safety concerns about the pupils who have to stand, pointing out the risk of injury in the event of an accident. When questioned about priorities in relation to safety, four of the six groups who gave oral evidence towards the end of the Inquiry, including the RUC and Child Care (NI), opted for the elimination of standing.
2.5.6 The Committee accept that there may well be some practical difficulties if standing on buses by school children is prohibited, given that most school children are carried on these scheduled stage carriage services, which by definition must accept members of the public as passengers. However, bearing in mind the strong views of so many of the witnesses and respondees to the Inquiry, the Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should specify in their contracts that every child who is entitled to transport is provided with a seat. This should apply to their own transport, as well as to contract transport and to pass-holders on stage carriage services. The Boards and Schools should also apply this to any organised school trips, regardless of whether buses or coaches are deployed. In the case of non-entitled children, Translink and any other stage carriage operators should identify instances where they stand for longer than the operator's quality standard and take measures to prevent this recurring. This should be reported on through the new incident reporting system. This will ensure the most rapid removal of requirements for standing, while avoiding conflict with general capacity limitations applying to all large passenger vehicles.
2.5.7 The Committee recognises that seating difficulties could arise under Translink's current arrangements of utilising scheduled stage carriage services to transport children to and from school. The general public passenger would be expected to stand (up to the carrying capacity of the buses), but the aim would be that school children should not have to stand. This does not reflect the statistical balance of risk, nor the traditional practice of children giving up seats to adults, since children are both better able to hold on and are less susceptible to serious injury than are adults. This may initially be problematic, for example, on some of the Citybus services, and will be exacerbated as new, accessible vehicles are introduced. However it will be something which Translink and the Boards will need to consider in phasing in this recommendation, for example, in terms of scheduling and, if necessary, additional buses. On the latter, Translink Officials in their submission to the Inquiry stated that a 'no standing for school children' recommendation would necessitate a considerable number of additional buses, and this is a matter which the Department for Regional Development may wish to consider closely. Priority in phasing out planned standing should be given to long journeys, journeys on high-speed roads, and those using smaller vehicles.
2.5.8 The Committee feels strongly that the Boards should introduce the no standing change as soon as possible and it should be an immediate requirement in all new 'bus pass' contracts with Translink. An incremental approach may well be necessary and the Committee sees the priority for implementation being rural bus services where higher bus speeds operate and the risk of injury for school children standing in the event of a crash is particularly high. A timetable with target dates for implementation should be agreed between the Boards and Translink. The Committee therefore recommends that the Education and Library Boards should require Translink to ensure that their journey planning system provides every pass-holder with a seat on a specified bus, even where this involves a stage carriage service.
2.5.9 In its submission to the Committee, the DoE advised that a Regulatory Impact Assessment would be required which would include an evaluation of the potential costs and the likely benefits of making such changes. The Committee recommends the Department of the Environment, as a matter of urgency, should carry out a Regulatory Impact Assessment on the effect a similar change (as in the Recommendation 2.5.8 above) in the policy for standing for non-entitled school children. This change would apply to all transport services carrying school children including Translink's contract hire and scheduled services and the large passenger carrying vehicles owned and operated by the Boards.
2.6 Translink's Stage Carriage Services
2.6.1 Towards the end of the Public Inquiry it became evident to the Committee the significance of the use by Translink of scheduled stage carriage services to transport children to and from school. Some 67,500 children utilise the bus pass system each day - approximately 63,000 on Ulsterbus and 4,500 on Citybus. Translink officials informed the Committee that at peak times mornings and afternoons they have some 1100 buses, the majority of which may be involved in transporting children to and from school, yet only 75 of these are 'contract buses'. The Committee learned that Translink manage the peak school transport demand by providing duplicate 'School Buses' on many of their heavily used scheduled stage carriage services, which are, in practice, used exclusively for school children transport. On these buses, unlike their 'contract buses' with the Boards, Translink can allow up to 22 school children to stand and through the 3 for 2 concession can exceed their maximum carrying capacity of 75 pupils. The Committee heard from School Principals from Limavady who referred to the 11 'contract buses' running from Strathfoyle to Limavady each day that are used exclusively for school children. Of these, 7 buses definitely picked up pupils in the school grounds on their return journeys. The Committee brought this to the attention of Translink Officials who constantly referred to these buses as 'stage carriage services' - clearly this differentiation of Translink services is not understood by schools. Translink highlighted the fact that transporting school children on scheduled stage carriage services offers pupils flexibility in that pupils are not obliged to catch a particular bus at a particular time e.g. allowing pupils to stay behind after school for extra-curricular activities. While the Committee acknowledges the value of such arrangements, they are regarded primarily as a marketing tool for Translink, rather than constituting a serious argument for the retention of lower quality standards for the carriage of school children.
2.6.2 The Committee has serious concerns on grounds of safety of Translink's widespread practice of transporting school children to and from school on their so-called scheduled stage carriage services, with destination boards that may or may not be marked 'School Bus' or identify particular named schools. These safety concerns include the absence of prescribed signs to the front and rear of the buses and the existence and proper use of warning lights when children are getting on and off these buses. The former is a requirement for other vehicles of the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations (NI) 2000 and the same Regulations permit the use of hazard warning lights when school children are boarding or alighting buses - currently all 'contract buses' and Board buses operate hazard warning lights. The Committee have made specific recommendations in this report for these two particular areas - in paragraphs 2.8 and 2.9. In addition to these, important recommendations such as the compulsory provision of seatbelts, the introduction of a no standing policy and the virtual abolition of the '3 for 2' seating concession, must apply on Translink's so called 'scheduled services' used predominantly to transport children to and from school at peak periods of the day. Other recommendations such as in the area of school children's baggage/equipment, driver's communication systems and the use of video cameras on buses carrying school children must also apply to these services. Bearing in mind the substantial number of school children who travel daily to and from school on these Translink services, the Committee consider that it is vital that as many of these children as possible are afforded the protection of all health and safety measures, not only those currently available within the law (e.g. proper signage on buses) but also new measures recommended in this report e.g. compulsory provision of seat belts.
2.6.3 The Committee considers that all Translink stage carriage services used predominantly for school travel should effectively be treated, for safety purposes, in the same terms as 'contract buses' for their school children passengers. If all the Committees' recommendations are implemented, therefore, signage, flashing lights and other safety recommendations such as the compulsory supply of seat belts for all school children (detailed below in this report) will also apply to these services. The Boards, Schools, and Translink should re-plan and redistribute these services to maximise the safety of the school children and thereby minimise the number of children travelling with the public on 'ordinary' scheduled stage carriage services without seatbelts, etc. The most effective way of achieving rapid improvement in the standards, however, is for the Boards to introduce this requirement on all new transport provider contracts (including bus pass payment contracts). It should be entirely clear that the Committee regards this as a defining responsibility of the Boards, in respect of the children for whom they arrange transport.
2.6.4 When the subject of potentially 'reclassifying' Translink's scheduled services, which transport so many children to and from school, to 'contract services', was discussed with Translink Officials, the issue of the flexibility of the concessionary ticket system was raised. Translink Officials informed the Committee that one advantage of school children utilising scheduled services is that their concessionary ticket allows them to travel free on Saturdays to games etc. while 'contract services' would not allow for this. The Committee would emphasise that it sees no reason why this flexibility should not continue under revised arrangements, which merely focus on protecting as many school children as possible through safety measures.
2.6.5 The Committee also learned that Translink currently attracts a substantial fuel duty rebate on its scheduled stage carriage services. The Committee considers that where Boards choose to continue to use Translink scheduled services to transport school children to and from school, the fuel duty relief should continue as the services can be used by the general public - they are not 'School Only' contract services. On 'contract buses' this rebate is not currently available, although a review of the system is currently under way in Great Britain, and this may have implications for Northern Ireland. It should be stressed, however, that since this is effectively a 'transfer payment' between one branch of Government and another there should be little or no overall effect on public expenditure. On balance, it is likely to be marginally more cost effective to retain the current position (with Translink receiving the maximum amount of rebate and charging Boards on a net basis), than to exclude dedicated school services from rebate, with consequent additional administration and higher charges to the Boards for which they will need to be compensated.
2.7.1 The Committee asked of groups/organisations with an interest in school transport and those who gave oral evidence, should all buses and coaches used to transport children should be fitted with seat belts? In responding to this question, Translink told the Committee that the transport of school children is fully integrated with the public transport scheduled bus system and that pupils account for over 50% of total passenger journeys. As they are concentrated within the hours of peak usage, it follows that virtually all Ulsterbus and Citybus vehicles convey school children. Translink advised that there would some difficulties associated with widespread fitting of seat belts. A secure anchorage is essential if seat belts are to prove effective. DoE confirmed at the evidence session on 26 October 2000 that many of the buses used to transport school children would not meet the requirements now in place for seat belt anchorage points. Thus it would be unlawful to fit them with seat belts.
2.7.2 In its submission to the Committee, the Education and Library Boards accepted that there are strong arguments in favour of providing each child with a seat. If either the legislation, or the Boards' policy, changes to require one child per seat, then the fitting of seat belts in all buses would be an additional safety feature.
2.7.3 Others raised concerns about the enforcement of seat belt usage if they were to be provided and made the point that it would be unreasonable to expect the driver to enforce this. The Committee accepts entirely that this responsibility should not be placed on the driver. The representatives of Strangford College were asked if they had experienced any trouble in enforcing the use of seat belts. The response was 'no'. They advised that when going on school trips the first task is to ensure that the children are seated and put on their seat belts on. The children get used to this routine and seat belt usage only has to be enforced occasionally. The Committee considers that the onus to encourage and insist that school children wear the seat belt provided rests with parents, who should be actively supported by School Teachers, Road Safety Education Officers and the transport providers.
2.7.4 The private coach operators pointed out that statutory seat belts have already been introduced in to the industry - through use of coaches. They have to install seat belts and provide a seat for each child. They also made the point that 'if the education boards feel so strongly about safety that they give us conditions to operate under - proper signage, seat belts, the one child per seat rule - it is only right that they should introduce them in to their own fleets.'
2.7.5 The Committee noted that under Regulation 115 (1) of the Construction and Use Regulations (NI) 1999, it states 'the manner in which passengers are carried in or on such vehicle.. shall at all times be such, that no danger is caused or likely to be caused to a person in or on the vehicle.'. The Committee recognises that there may well be practical difficulties with the provision of seat belts on a number of buses, and that a universal requirement for fitting would be likely to damage the currently integrated provision of public and schools transport, with a consequent loss of rural bus services. It also accepts that, on the basis of analysis of risks and cost: benefit ratios, seat belts provide a very poor return. However it firmly believes that there are major discrepancies between the legislation requiring that when travelling as passengers in a car, or when on coach trips organised by schools, children should wear seat belts, compared with no requirement to provide seat belts on home to school transport. This also gives children a very confused message about the wearing of seat belts, for which the rationale - the very different characteristics of cars and large buses in accidents - is not obvious to the general public. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should progressively require the provision of lap-and-diagonal seat belts for all school children on both contract services and those vehicles on scheduled services provided by Translink primarily for the carriage of school children, and on their own buses. The Boards should prepare a programme, in consultation with the Department of Education, outlining the shortest realistic timetable for full implementation of this requirement, taking into account the vehicle replacement requirements, for presentation to this Committee within six months. This timetable should incorporate the phasing requirements contained in the recommendation at paragraph 2.7.6 below. The large-scale implications of the replacement of elderly buses, not least those in the Boards' own fleets which are unsuitable for seat belt fitment, is recognised and accommodated in this recommendation. The Committee rejects the argument put forward by some of those who gave evidence that as there is no requirement under EU legislation for seat belts to be fitted to buses used for home to school travel, there is no need for Northern Ireland to move in this direction. However, the Committee takes note of research by Volvo Bus, which indicates the preference of their Head of Traffic and Product Safety for all buses and coaches to be fitted with three point seat belts. The Committee therefore further recommends that the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, in representing in United Kingdom in European Union discussions, should propose that the EU pursue the concept of requiring seat belts to be installed in all buses including those used for school transport and stage carriage services.
2.7.6 Also, the introduction of low-floor buses, to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, reduces the seating capacity of a 43-seat bus to 43 seats (and increases the standing passenger capacity from 22 to 28). However, the Committee considers it all important that all school children are individually seated and protected by a seat belt. The Committee, in this respect, welcomes the introduction by Translink of 20 new double-decker buses - which will improve the proportion of seats per bus, consequently increasing the potential for more passengers with seat belts. However, it is acknowledged that universal provision of seat belts would involve enormous capital costs, and other measures would provide greater safety benefits at much lower cost. This has been the consistent conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States, most recently reviewed in 1999, which is the reason why there is no Federal requirement to fit seat belts. Indeed, the NTSB has further concluded that the provision of lap-only seat belts is actually detrimental to passengers' safety, and that only lap-and-diagonal belts - as specified in the Committee's recommendation - offer any benefit.
The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards should determine and apply a phasing in programme with three time horizons reflecting priorities for the fitting of seat belts to vehicles (including their own), viz:
Also all new or refurbished buses for use in transporting school children should have seat belts fitted and serious consideration should be given to other protection measures.
2.8.1 Under Regulation 17 (1), subject to paragraph (2), of the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations (NI) 2000, a person shall not use or cause or permit to be used on a road a bus when it is carrying a child to or from his school unless -
(a) a prescribed sign is fitted to the front of the bus and is plainly visible to road users ahead of the bus; and
(b) a prescribed sign is fitted to the rear of the bus and is plainly visible to road users behind the bus.
Regulation 17 (2) provides that paragraph 1 does not apply where a bus is on a 'bus service' of a description specified in paragraph 2 of Schedule 18 (bus services specified for the purposes of regulation 56 (5) to the Construction and Use Regulations).
2.8.2 Schedule 18 specifies as 'bus services'.. services which are provided by means of vehicles adapted to carry more that 8 passengers .. and in respect of which certain conditions are satisfied. This includes 'at least half of the accommodation on the vehicles by means of which the service is provided is normally available to members of the general public and the service is regularly used by such members'. Translink takes the view that children travelling to and from school using bus passes on its stage carriage services are members of the general public.
Therefore, under these Regulations, buses provided by Translink on 'contract services', under which only around 2500 children per day are taken to and from school, are required to display prescribed signs. However, as indicated above, buses providing scheduled services to the general public i.e. stage carriage services, are exempt from this requirement. Private operators, who transport on contract services around 6600 children per day, are also required to display special signs when taking children to and from school. The Boards do not have to meet the same requirement as their buses have a distinctive yellow and white livery.
2.8.3 At the evidence session on 26 October 2000, DoE officials described the sign to be displayed on the school bus as yellow and black on the front and rear of the vehicle, and with the front sign being slightly smaller than the rear. The one on the rear is approximately 16 inches square. The sign is printed in the Highway Code as a yellow and black sign showing two children.
2.8.4 In its submission Translink advised that 'any suggestion that the sign should be displayed on school journeys and not on other journeys is virtually unworkable in practice. Ulsterbus vehicles often display the legend 'School Bus' or the school name on their destination display but only when this is unlikely to cause confusion to other passengers. Most buses cannot display destination information to the rear'.
2.8.5 The response from representatives of the Women's Institute to this when they gave evidence to the Committee on 30 November 2000 was quite simple 'people might say that the children would pull the sign down; if they do it can be put up again. There should be signs on the front and back, which can be turned off when the bus is not in school use.' The Private Coach operators told the Committee at the evidence session on 14 December 2000 that they already have yellow signs with two children marked on them on the front and rear of vehicles operating home to school transport.
The provision and deployment of this sign would be mandatory on all vehicles used specifically to carry children to and from school at any time, and on stage carriage vehicles where 'significant' numbers of school children are being carried. It would be an offence to deploy this sign except when, or immediately before or after, the vehicle is stopped to allow school children to board or alight. The Boards, DoE, RUC and transport providers must ensure that the legislation that all buses/coaches display the prescribed signs to the front and the rear as required by Regulations. This must include appropriate Translink it would not be satisfactory to simply display 'School Bus' or a school destination on the destination board. Furthermore, Boards should introduce this requirement specifically in all new contracts and DoE will need to amend or add to the legislation to cover such signage. Consideration should also be given to introduce a requirement on all new taxi contracts to provide and display a suitable sign when transporting school children.
2.9 Flashing Lights
2.9.1 Under the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations (NI) 2000 Translink buses used on contract school services are permitted to use hazard warning lights when children are boarding or alighting. Private operator buses are permitted to use hazard warning lights when children are getting on or off the bus when they are displaying the 'School Bus' sign. Board buses are also allowed to use hazard warning lights when children are boarding or alighting. At the evidence session with the Committee on 7 December 2000, Chief Inspector Hiller of the RUC stated 'we must put large amber lights on buses to make them clearly visible; hazard warning lights are inadequate because they are 18 inches from the ground and quite small. From behind a bus, all that can be seen is the right indicator flashing and this is confusing.' The Committee considers that very few drivers are aware of the purpose of the hazard warning lights in these circumstances. The Committee recommends that it is compulsory for hazard warning lights to be fitted to the front and rear and as near to roof level as possible, on all buses / coaches transporting school children and operated for all boarding and alighting in conjunction with the signs specified in the preceding recommendation - this includes 'reclassified' Translink stage carriage services transporting large numbers of school children (see section on Translink's stage carriage services, paragraph 2.6). The Boards should introduce this as requirement as soon as possible on all new contracts and DoE should amend the legislation as appropriate for all coaches and buses. Implementation should be phased in, as necessary, with priority for buses/coaches transporting primary school children and rural services, and steps should be taken by the DoE to increase awareness among drivers about the use of flashing lights on buses/coaches being used for school transport (see recommendations on improved Road Safety Education, paragraph 2.18).
2.10 Legislation Governing the use of Minibuses/Coaches on Organised School Trips
2.10.1 The DoE advised the Committee in its submission that it introduced Regulations in 1996 which require that where a group of 3 or more children (under the age of 16) is carried on an organised trip in a minibus or coach, forward facing seats fitted with seat belts must be provided. The Principal of St Mary's High School, Limavady advised the Committee during the evidence session on 23 November 2000 that when he sends a team out to play a Gaelic football match he hires a coach and has to put all the children in seats and put seat belts on them. The Committee also understood that it was a legal requirement that organised trips must use a coach fitted with seat belts and provide a seat for each child. However some doubt was cast on this by the evidence given by representatives from Child Care (NI) on 30 November 2000. The Committee was told that seat belts were not mandatory when buses are used for school trips and that schools have discretion over whether to use a bus or coach and often would use buses, which are not usually fitted with seat belts, for cost reasons.
The Committee considers that the legislation and practice in this area is unclear and should be clarified as soon as possible for the benefit of both schools and parents. The Committee recommends that Education and Library Boards and individual schools should ensure that children on organised school trips travel on vehicles fitted with seat belts, with a seat for every child, and that this should be supported by guidance from the Department of Education.
2.11 Consolidation of the Legislation
2.11.1 The requirements for the regulation of vehicles used to transport passengers in Northern Ireland and for the licensing of operators of such vehicles are set out in the Transport Act (NI) 1967; and the Road Traffic (NI) Orders 1981 and 1995 and the following regulations -
As the RUC pointed out at the evidence session on 7 December 2000 the legislation is 'not exactly user friendly from an enforcement point of view'. The Committee agrees with this view and recommends that the legislation should be consolidated.
2.11.2 The Committee is aware of the current work being undertaken by the Department for Regional Development in developing a Regional Transportation Strategy for Northern Ireland, and recognises the synergies between school, public and community transport. In this context, the Committee believes it would be appropriate for the DoE and DRD jointly to undertake a comprehensive review of Public Service Vehicle legislation, which should also take account of other issues which have arisen over the last 30 years. Matters which are particularly relevant to school transport include:
2.12 The Yellow School Bus System
2.12.1 The Committee asked those responding to the Inquiry what arrangements they considered should be put in place for the transportation of school children. A number of those who responded referred the Committee to the yellow school bus system that operates in a number of other countries such as parts of America, Canada and New Zealand. The Committee noted that the Government has announced the authorisation of pilot schemes in Great Britain to test the effectiveness of the yellow school buses. The pilots, should commence this autumn using up to 100 yellow buses shipped over from America. The Deputy Prime Minister was quoted as saying 'if they (the yellow buses) are good enough for American children why shouldn't our children have them?' It was also reported that if the pilots were successful, the buses will be made compulsory for all schools across the country. In the United States, these yellow buses are fitted with seats designed for young children, large flashing red lights, and 'stop flags' on either side of the vehicles, and some have seat belts and interior video cameras to encourage good behaviour.
2.12.2 It is noted that the focus for these proposed pilots is principally their contribution to raising the proportion of non-entitled pupils travelling to school by bus, rather than safety issues. Any pilot scheme should therefore be clear in specifying the prioritisation of these alternative outcomes. Further information from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions indicates that the relaxations of British regulations necessary to permit the operation of these vehicles would not be available to future imports. This suggests that their anticipated price advantage would be diminished, and raises doubts about their compatibility with the objective of integrating transport for pupils with special needs, since their design is inherently unsuited to easy, rapid access, especially for passengers in wheelchairs.
2.12.3 The Committee recommend that Department of Education and Department for Regional Devopment should urgently commission a study to identify the advantages and disadvantages of a dedicated and segregated school bus system (as in the U.S. 'Yellow Buses') from the points of view of:
The study should involve a programme of pilots involving both rural and urban examples, and both primary and secondary examples. It should further consider alternatives, including:
The study should also assess the possible impact of dedicated school buses on subsequent public bus service use by children, and on their development of traffic awareness and road safety skills.
2.12.4 The relevance of a potential 'yellow bus' system as a means of encouraging modal shift away from car use for the home to school journey, as well as the issue of its role in promoting or discouraging post-school use of public transport, make this a critical project for the DRD, which has responsibility for transportation planning. It is currently developing the Regional Transportation Strategy, to implement more sustainable policies and drive much-needed investment in Northern Ireland's transport systems. As such, it is centrally concerned with the interface between school and public transport, and it will be faced with growing investment calls from Translink, which it sponsors, in order to address the significant backlog in its fleet renewal programme, the demands of increasing accessibility across its fleet, and the increased call on resources implicit in the recommendations of this report. The DRD, DoE and DE need to adopt jointly a balanced and constructive approach to ensure that the benefits of these recommendations are achieved quickly, and at the same time that the opportunities to develop the public transport market are fully utilised.
2.13 Arrangements for Getting On and Off Buses
2.13.1 It is clear from the evidence presented to the Committee that one of the highest risks to children using school transport occurs when they are getting on or off the bus. Translink pointed out that accidents involving children tend to fall into two main categories, both off bus. Children standing behind others push them forward into the path of the bus before the driver can bring the vehicle to a halt. The second main type of accident concerns children crossing the road, behind or in front of the bus, after leaving the bus.
2.13.2 A number of groups that submitted evidence to the Committee proposed the introduction of the system that operates in a number of States in America and in Canada, under which traffic is prohibited from passing a school bus when children are getting on or off. In some instances the yellow school buses in these countries stop in the middle of the road to prevent vehicles passing and some buses are equipped with arms that descend when the bus stops to make it clear to other drivers that they should not overtake. Nevertheless, the US experience is not conclusive; it was noted that in 1998/99 nine children were killed by vehicles overtaking yellow buses.
2.13.3 The Federation of Women's Institute was particularly in favour of adopting this approach and over a number of years has conducted research about its use in a various countries. Officials from the DRD at the evidence session on 9 November 2000, advised the Committee that regarding the question of overtaking of school buses, none of the statistical evidence from previous accidents had pointed to that being a problem. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions had been asked if they had considered it, but had concluded that it was inappropriate to pursue such a policy because of its contradiction of current road safety guidance, and its possible consequent detrimental impact on children's road behaviour . However it would be considered by the School Travel Advisory Group. The Committee was also interested in an examination of the 'maximum 20 km/h when overtaking' approach applied in New Zealand, which could support an allegation of liability for any accident by quantifying an appropriate speed to comply with the existing Highway Code requirement to 'drive very carefully'.
2.13.4 Although the RUC expressed concern about the proposal in its submission to the Committee, at the evidence session Chief Inspector Hiller agreed that the concept was good but required further research to see whether stopping overtaking while unloading and loading school children passengers is feasible given the road infrastructure here. The Committee consider that this research should include examination of the use and potential use of turning circles within and adjacent to school grounds and 'proper' pick up/set down areas along school bus routes. The Chief Inspector agreed that pilot schemes could be put in place - one in a rural and one in an urban area - to evaluate the idea. The Committee recommends that the Department of the Environment should undertake urgent research into the potential for new legislation in respect of other road traffic passing vehicles which have school bus signs deployed. This should examine the potential for:
and should consider the experience of other countries in this regard. The DoE should report back to this Committee as soon as practicable.
2.13.5 The evidence presented to the Committee indicated that boarding and alighting is the major danger point for children using school transport, and that this danger is not restricted to traffic passing school buses. Despite this, no evidence was given of any formalised risk assessment being undertaken in the environs of schools; while one Belfast school features in good practice guidance for providing a safe, dedicated bus turning and loading area there was anecdotal evidence of another school refusing buses access to its grounds, forcing pupils to board and alight on the street outside. The Committee was also made aware of the prevalence in Great Britain of flashing amber signals, fixed with the warning signs on the approach to schools, and activated by School Crossing Patrols at the relevant times to alert drivers to the imminent presence of child pedestrians. Reference was also made in Committee to the effectiveness of good liaison between schools and operators; school involvement in the boarding / alighting process minimises problems and tends to be reflected in better behaviour by children on the buses.
2.13.6 The Committee therefore recommends that the Department of Education and Department of the Environment should develop and publish a Good Practice Guide in respect of Risk Assessment surrounding boarding and alighting at or adjacent to school premises, including coverage of:
2.13.7 The objective would be to draw up a set of guidelines and instructions, picking up on international experience in this area, which would be applied when considering the feasibility of introducing such practices at individual schools and individual school 'runs'. Pilot schemes could form part of the initial examination perhaps in 1 or 2 District Council areas or a Board area. The Boards should take the lead in implementing and overseeing pilot schemes in association with the relevant Government Departments - priority being for primary school transport services. Changes may involve amendments to legislation for new road signage. While making these recommendations, the Committee acknowledges that some of these concepts could also place children at risk, as they may be lulled into a false sense of security when crossing the road in other circumstances. The Committee therefore considers it vital that the implementation of any scheme linked with the above recommendations should (as with other recommendations) be linked to a new/enhanced road safety education programme, as recommended in paragraph 2.18.1.
2.14 Improved Means of Communication for Bus/Coach/Taxi Drivers
2.14.1 The Committee heard evidence from a number of groups about the problems that can occur particularly at the start of the school year, with the number of children that turn up for school buses. The Committee accepts, as has already been acknowledged, that drivers will often allow children on buses rather than leave them at the side of the road. The Committee considers however that this places an unfair responsibility on drivers and that some direct means of communication should be provided so that drivers can immediately alert supervisors if the bus is getting too crowded. This would also allow the driver to alert the school to any behavioural problems on the bus as and when they occur. The Committee recommends that all drivers of buses/coaches or taxis transporting children to and from school are provided with a means of communicating from the vehicle with their depots, the incident 'hotline', the police and other emergency services - drivers could immediately report unforeseen numbers of passengers, over-crowding, misbehaviour, or vandalism. The Boards should stipulate this requirement in future transport provider contracts and equip their own buses as necessary .
2.15 Behaviour and Vandalism Issues
2.15.1 Many of those who gave evidence to the Committee raised the issue of misbehaviour on buses and a number of those who gave evidence suggested that consideration should be given to providing supervision on buses. This however raises various problems e.g. who will be responsible for providing it and how will it be paid for. The Committee's intention is that the problem of misbehaviour may be alleviated by less overcrowding if its recommendations on no standing on buses and virtual abolition of '3 for 2' seating on buses are put in place. The Committee was also advised that the provision of a regular driver for each group of school children can be particularly effective mechanism for improving behaviour and identifying any miscreants, and it commends this approach to operators and Boards. The Committee was advised that Translink currently have a number of buses with video equipment. The Committee recommends that the Education and Library Boards and Translink should undertake a specific investigation of the factors that contribute towards vandalism, bullying and misbehaviour on buses, with a view to applying appropriate Action Plan measures as rapidly as possible. Appropriate measures for an Action Plan, where there are recurring instances of pupil misbehaviour and/or vandalism, may include:
2.15.2 Boards should stipulate in future transport provider contracts relevant Action Plan requirements, as necessary. The Committee anticipates that, where it is deemed appropriate to provide escorts on these grounds, that this will be the responsibility of the Board. A firm line should be taken to tackle misbehaviour and/or vandalism on buses and bus-passes should be withdrawn, if appropriate.
2.16 Storage of Equipment/Baggage
2.16.1 The Committee was reminded by a number of groups that today's children carry a large amount of baggage/equipment with them to and from school. This adds considerably to the problem of overcrowding on buses and to the potential for danger in the event of an accident when they may be trying to get off the bus quickly but will be tripped up by bags in the aisle. The Committee considers that better use could be made of the luggage compartments on buses although this may inconvenience drivers and pupils when retrieving luggage at different stops. Nevertheless, this is an issue that must be thoroughly examined by the transport providers, the Boards and by schools together with an effort to reduce the amount of baggage carried each day. The Committee recommends Education and Library Boards, Schools, Translink and other main transport providers should review the nature and amount of baggage and equipment which children carry to and from school on buses / coaches, with the aim of reducing the amount carried (e.g. by the extension of secure storage facilities and their use in schools) and ensuring the provision and use of appropriate storage inside buses/coaches such that:
2.16.2 This will minimise over-crowding resulting from baggage and potential danger from accidents. Boards should introduce the new arrangements for baggage in schools and on buses / coaches with priority being for secondary school and rural services. It is accepted that this may require a change in culture among schools, operators and pupils, and this challenge should be tackled positively in a content of responsible citizenship. See recommendation on Road Safety Education in paragraph 2.18.1.
2.16.3 The Committee further recommends that the Department of Education should provide general guidance in respect of appropriate baggage allowances for travel on vehicles. The Education and Library Boards should use this to specify the appropriate storage arrangements in their contracts with providers, enhanced, where necessary, in relation to specific schools or specific routes. Translink should use this guidance in respect of stage carriage services which carry a significant number of children to and from school.
2.17 Improved Liaison between Schools and Transport Providers/The Bus Pass System
2.17.1 The Committee was concerned about a number of issues drawn to its attention in relation to the issuing of bus passes and the potential that this has to add to the problem of overcrowding. The Committee was advised that there can be difficulties at the start of the school year about ascertaining the number of children who will be entitled to travel on a particular bus route to and from school. This means that buses can often be overcrowded for some weeks until arrangements are made between the service operators and the schools about the number and scheduling of buses required. The Committee considers that this could largely be overcome by better liaison between the transport providers, the schools and the Boards particularly at the end of one school year and the very beginning of another, and that a better system is required for monitoring problems and handling complaints. The Committee recommends that the Boards should establish a formal reporting system for incidents involving overcrowding, indiscipline or other matters affecting safety, and accidents and that the Department of the Environment, Department of Education, Department for Regional Development, Royal Ulster Constabulary, Education and Library Boards, Schools and Colleges, and main transport providers should establish appropriate liaison arrangements for dealing with reports received under this system. Use of this system should be required for all contractors, and reinforced by an appropriate penalty system if not used. It should also apply to the Boards' own operations, and Translink and other transport providers should apply it in respect of stage carriage services and non-entitled children. Schools and Colleges should be recommended to use this system. The Boards should be required to publish an annual analysis of reports received, which should be considered by the DE and, where appropriate, updated guidance issued.
2.17.2 As a further measure, the Committee also recommends that the Education and Library Boards should establish and publicise a telephone 'hotline' to deal with school transport incidents as they occur. This facility should be staffed to cover the times between the earliest vehicle starting out (so that breakdowns can be dealt with) and the last scheduled drop off time, but there should be the ability to extend hours in emergency. Schools, parents, children, drivers and operators should be able to use this facility when incidents occur or to report complaints. It should provide a message handling/forwarding function, major incident handling, and have authority to hire in emergency transport when required. The NI School Transport Advisory Group should consider and review school transport services to improve both safety and service efficiency.
2.17.3 The Committee was also advised by representatives from Strangford College and the two Principals from Limavady that a higher number of bus passes were issued for some routes than the voluntary bus capacity limit imposed by Translink e.g. 90 passes had been issued for one route to and from Strangford College, when the voluntary limit set by Translink was 75. The Committee was told that this was justified on the basis that 90 children never turn up for the bus on any given day as some are ill, some are taken in cars by parents etc. The Committee acknowledges that overcrowding is aggravated on occasions by the attitude of children and perhaps some parents to catching the school bus. The Committee was told by the two Principals from Limavady that for one reason or another the pupils do not get the first bus. There is no actual allocation per bus, just a number of buses to cope with the number of pupils. As the year goes on, the later buses get more crowded than the earlier ones. The Committee considers that there should be an element of self help in alleviating the problem of overcrowding and that parents should encourage children to get on an early bus. The Committee recommends that Translink should be required to plan that sufficient stage carriage service buses should provide all school children with a pass to travel. The Committee also recommends that consideration should be given to issuing specific passes for specific buses, so that the demand for transport is spread more evenly across the available vehicles. The Committee considers that such individual bus allocation would reduce the worst overcrowding straight away, and the NI School Travel Advisory Group (STAG) should take the lead in examining this issue with others as indicated above.
2.17.4 It became apparent in evidence that heavy reliance was placed on the legal minimum standards by all parties involved in providing school transport. The Committee firmly believes that all children, whether or not travelling to and from school, are entitled to do so in safety and reasonable comfort, and that the current criteria do not provide appropriate guidance to ensure that these aims are met. The Committee recommends that:
2.18 Road Safety Education
2.18.1 A number of organisations stressed the need for improved road safety education. In particular, Translink officials highlighted the merits of an enhanced Road Safety programme for school children. The Committee recognises the importance of this and recommends that the implementation of measures contained in this report should be linked to development and delivery of a new/enhanced Road Safety Education programme (developed within the 'Safer Routes to Schools' programme) to:
This campaign should involve all parties identified as having a role to play in this report, including the Education and Library Boards and Schools, in association with the Department of the Environment, Royal Ulster Constabulary and main transport providers. DoE should also establish an education and awareness programme targeted at parents and children to enhance the wearing of seat belts, extending the current campaign which particularly targets people in the 16-24 age group. The campaigns should be planned in consultation with local community groups and the NI School Transport Advisory Group (STAG).
2.18.2 The Committee welcomes the recent increase in the number of Road Safety Education Officers from 11 to 20. The Committee would also endorse Translink's initiative in producing information packs and a special safety video called 'The Voyager' for use in schools.
2.19 Road Conditions
2.19.1 On the subject of Road Safety in general terms, the Committee's concern for the safety of school children travelling on school buses was heightened by the occurrence of no less than three accidents involving school buses during the course of this Inquiry. Fortunately none of the children suffered serious injuries. However, with one of the accidents near Castlewellan, the icy road conditions were a contributory factor. The Committee considered this issue and recommends that the early gritting of roads on school bus routes, even where these do not meet the criteria for treatment, must be a Roads Service priority. This will require substantially improved liaison between the Boards, operators and the Roads Service to identify potential black spots and ensure that the nature of the necessary priority is mutually understood.
2.20 The Adequacy of Insurance Cover for Buses used in School Transport
2.20.1 In view of its concerns with the number of school children carried daily on buses while travelling to and from school, the Committee decided that it was important to determine the adequacy of the insurance cover provided by the carriers.
2.20.2 Overall, the total number carried during 1999/2000 was some 105,000 school children - made up of approximately 31,000 by the Education and Library Boards, 63,000 by Ulsterbus*, 5,000 by Citybus* and 7,000 by Education and Library Board contracts with Private Operators. (*These exclude those children liable to pay fares)
2.20.3 When inviting submissions, the Committee gave the opportunity for everyone to comment specifically on the question of adequacy of insurance. However, it was clear from the submissions that, apart from emphasising the need for sufficient insurance to meet carrier needs, the majority had little comment to make on this aspect. The issue was addressed by the Boards, Translink, the DRD and the DoE.
2.20.4 The Boards must hold insurance for their own vehicles as required by Part VIII of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981, to cover their vehicles against third party liability. Their insurance provides unlimited cover for public liability and personal injury and a maximum of £5million for damage to property.
2.20.5 Under Section 7 of the Transport Act (NI) 1967 Ulsterbus, Citybus and the Private Operators must demonstrate adequate insurance cover when applying annually for their Road Service Licences for their vehicles. The insurance held by Ulsterbus and Citybus, provides commercial insurance cover for public liability up to £5million for each incident. In addition, their parent company, the Northern Ireland Holding Company, has a self-insurance provision of approximately £11million for accidents involving companies in the Group. A Private Operator is required to confirm that valid insurance is held prior to the granting of any contract from the Boards.
2.20.6 The Committee is satisfied as to the adequacy of the insurance cover provided and has no recommendations to make on this matter.
2.21 Monitoring of Insurance Cover for and Accidents involving Taxis used in School Transport
2.21.1 The Committee was aware that significant numbers of children are carried to school each day in taxis contracted directly by the Boards and it decided to determine the adequacy of the insurance cover provided by the taxis. The Committee also asked about the details and adequacy of any checks in place to ensure that taxis used for school transport are being used legally, in compliance with the agreed contract and have the appropriate insurance.
2.21.2 The numbers and costs of pupils carried by taxis during 1999 / 2000 are as follows -
2.21.3 As the adequacy of taxi insurance cover was one of the specified Terms of Reference for the Inquiry, all of those making submissions were invited to comment on this issue. Apart from emphasising the need for adequate insurance cover, the vast majority of respondents had very little to say on this. The Boards, the DE and the DoE did address the issue within their submissions.
2.21.4 In its submission, the DoE confirmed that taxis are classed with all other vehicles under Article 61 of the Road Traffic (Order) 1981 in that they must provide adequate insurance cover for third party liabilities and damage to property. It is an offence to drive, or cause or permit anyone to drive, a motor vehicle (including a taxi) while uninsured. As this form of school transport is provided by the Boards on a contractual basis, it was clear to the Committee that the submission and evidence from the Boards would be key to establishing the adequacy of the arrangements.
2.21.5 The Boards told the Committee that a taxi is only provided for statemented pupils, those with a medical condition or where there are no Board or Public Transport services available to facilitate pupils with entitlement to take them to their nearest school. A taxi can be used for up to four pupils on any one journey although there may be circumstances where only one pupil will be in a taxi. An escort would be provided where a child's particular mental or physical condition warranted this.
2.21.6 The contracts for procuring taxi services are issued for one to three years depending on the particular Board and while there are some local variations with each contract, they all specify common criteria to be met:-
(a) all vehicles to be used are properly tested and licensed;
2.21.7 Before a contract is awarded, the Boards inspect all vehicle and driver documentation to ensure that it complies with their requirements. Where a contract is awarded for more than one year, the documents are checked at the start of each school year.
2.21.8 All the Boards have stated that they carry out random checks throughout the period of the contracts but only the North Eastern Board keeps records of these checks. The Western Board only records what it considers to be serious problems but none have been recorded in the past five years. (In their joint submission the Boards stated that these checks take up a considerable amount of time and if they are to be carried out more systematically, additional resources would be required.)
2.21.9 Over the past five years, thirteen accidents involving taxis carrying pupils to school have been reported to the Boards, none with major injuries.
2.21.10 When giving oral evidence before the Committee on 16 November 2000, the Boards' representatives referred to an extensive Report on school transport. This Report, 'Home to School Transport, Fundamental Service Review', was prepared by the Central Management Support Unit of the Boards in May 2000 under the auspices of a Best Value review.
2.21.11 Among other issues, the Report highlighted the following:-
(a) substantial savings (ca. £500k ) could be made if Boards were to lease
minibuses to transport the majority of those children currently carried by taxi;
The Report made a number of recommendations to address these and other relevant issues.
2.21.12 Taxis are the most expensive form of transport provided by the Boards - the average cost is £1135 per pupil carried - but there seems to be no immediate plans to replace this service. The Committee is concerned that such a large number of children are carried daily in what appears to be a largely unregulated and poorly monitored system with high costs. While accepting that there may be some justifiable explanations for the variations from Board to Board in the average costs of providing a taxi service, such as local market forces and the distances involved, the Committee has no doubt that much more can be done by the Boards to reduce these differentials. Accordingly, the Committee recommends that those recommendations contained in the 'Home to School Transport, Fundamental Service Review' Report in relation to taxis, should be followed up and implemented as soon as possible by all Education and Library Boards.
2.21.13 The Committee accepts that the insurance cover provided by those taxis carrying pupils to and from school is adequate when the contracts are awarded but it does have serious concerns about the clear lack of ongoing monitoring, control and recording. It is unacceptable that only one Board (the NEELB) records the checks it does, and that this appears to reflect poor monitoring of performance as well as paperwork. The Committee recommends that each Education and Library Board, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment's Transport Licensing and Enforcement Branch, should instigate a rolling programme of active school transport monitoring, based on an adequate sample, to cover both safety and quality aspects of journeys. This will require liaison with and guidance to other agencies, including schools and colleges. The results should be published annually. These checks would include the provision of insurance details, driver's licence details, vehicle registration and taxation, PSV certification and compliance with the existing contract, e.g. the number of children carried. To maintain consistency and fairness, such monitoring must cover all modes of transport, including buses, coaches and the Boards' own vehicles.
2.22 Accident Reporting
2.22.1 As has been noted earlier in this report, the absence of relevant accident statistics makes it difficult to assess real current risks, which in turn makes prioritisation of safety measures very difficult. This applies to all modes of transport, and not just taxis.
2.22.2 The Committee recommends that:
The DoE should undertake an annual analysis of accident statistics relating to the home to school journey which includes accidents by mode and accidents by estimated modal mileage and should report the results to this Committee.
3.1 The Committee wishes to ensure and enhance the safety of all school children travelling to and from school, not only those entitled to provision of home-to-school transport by the Education and Library Boards but also the non-entitled majority who use a variety of forms of transport, including travelling as fare-passengers on stage carriage Ulsterbus and Citybus services. The Committee recognises the wider need to encourage greater usage of modes of transport, which are more sustainable, environmentally friendly and enjoy the best safety record. These aims, together with the concept of the 'duty of care' owed to school children by all concerned in the transportation of children to and from school, were considered by the Committee in formulating its recommendations.
3.2 The Committee identified that proper exercise of the duty of care, extends beyond what can be achieved by legislative requirements alone, requires appropriate assessment of risks, based on facts rather than perceptions, and will change over time, with technical progress and the changing climate of expectations. The Committee has sought to challenge the standards currently applied to this duty, some of which date from very different circumstances, in the present day context.
3.3 The Committee's key recommendations arising from this Inquiry are centred on the clear need to increase safety and quality standards of the transport used for home to school transport and to improve the information, communication and planning between all involved. These include:
3.4 Other recommendations aim to improve liaison between schools and transport providers, address misbehaviour and vandalism on school buses, reduce baggage/equipment carried by children on school buses and establishment of incident 'hotlines' with all accidents reported and fully analysed.
3.5 Finally, the Committee recommended that the implementation of all the measures proposed in this Report should be linked to the development and delivery of a new and enhanced Road Safety Education programme involving all parties having a role to play in safe transport of children. Furthermore, the Committee have asked that the new DoE annual analysis of accident statistics relating to the home to school journey be reported to this Committee.
3.6 It is the Committee's sincere hope that the implementation of recommendations in this Report will enhance the safety of all school children travelling to and from school.
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