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Clunk glitch

Reva Klein on how schools are conned as they try to upgrade minibus safety belts.

Schools and local education authorities are being hoodwinked by companies making false claims of safe seat and seat belt installations in minibuses. In some cases, they are rendering the vehicles more dangerous than if they had not been fitted at all.

Alan Greaves, a teacher in Walsall who is planning to set up his own school travel company when he takes early retirement, has discovered dangerous and dishonest practices among seat belt manufacturers and coachbuilders. Since the intensifying demands for greater safety following the 1993 Hagley School minibus accident on the M40, in which 13 people were killed, parents have been calling for three-point seat belts in minibuses.

Because the cost of a new minibus is beyond the reach of many schools, they are opting to instal new seats (which are necessary to withstand belt loads experienced in a high-speed impact) and three-point seat belts in their existing vehicles. This work has generated a veritable boom in seat manufacturing and fitting.

But the boom has been an unregulated one. In the absence of Department for Education guidelines, LEAs have had to draw up their own regulations, often without having specialist knowledge or expertise in the field.

According to Alan Button, of Staffordshire County Fleet Management: "140 LEAs coming up with their own specifications for fitting seats and seat belts retrospectively (in vans that are converted into minibuses) won't necessarily be doing it to the same high standards or have worked out what the best specifications are."

Alan Greaves uncovered the racket that exists in the absence of regulations when he investigated the possibility of converting a VW van. He first met with Dr George Read of Manchester Metropolitan University, who had developed a new flooring system for converted minibuses. The reinforced floor is necessary in older minibuses to safely carry the weight of seats and the three-point seat belts.

If the floor is not reinforced and the driver were to brake hard, the passengers would go forward causing the rear legs of the seats of each row would be ripped out with the floor still attached. The consequences of several rows of seats being uprooted in this way are potentially disastrous.

Dr Read's specially reinforced floor means that the seats remain firmly anchored. But because of the added weight that it imposes on the structure of the vehicle, only 13 passenger seats are allowed in the minibus.

When Mr Greaves enquired from his local coachbuilder if he could have 17 seats installed with the reinforced floor, he was told that he could, but that MIRA (the Motor Industry Research Association) and the local fire service had advised against using the floor.

Mr Greaves realised that there was something wrong about this "advice" and decided to investigate for himself. When he made enquiries at MIRA, Mike Dickison, manager of the body structures department told him that he had a file of minibus companies who have claimed MIRA approval when they hadn't passed tests on all counts.

At any rate, it is the Department of Transport-run Vehicle Certification Agency that issues certificates to show that a vehicle has passed tests, not MIRA.

"As soon as you start asking minibus conversion companies for advice and quotations, you start getting conflicting stories," says Dickison. "Many will assure you that their system offers the best solution and they will try to back up their claims with bizarre statements, which have no scientific foundation" "What's needed," he says, "is the enforcement of test standards. At the moment, people are being shown a van and being told that the seat meets EC Regulation XYZ and the seat belt meets EC Regulation ABC but what they're not being told is that the whole system is not being tested together. The different components in isolation are not what a safe vehicle is about. A vehicle is like a chain - it's only as strong as its weakest link" Pat Harris of BUSK, Belt Up School Kids, is "horrified at operators making false claims of MIRA documentation. People are being grossly misled. We know many LEAs and operators are fitting belts incorrectly. If a belt is not fitted properly or if the seating is too flimsy or the anchorage points are not strong enough, it could be lethal. " BUSK wants to see tight controls to ensure that seat-belts are installed by specially licensed fitters. "What happens now," she explains, "is that a school goes to a seat- belt fitter and doesn't know a good job from a bad job. The fitter will say they use all the best materials and the school thinks fine. But schools should ask to see the original test report to verify if the parts have been crash-tested as one component and then ring the testing house to verify the results.

"We've spent the past three years campaigning for seat belts for children. The next three years will be spent on properly fitted and used seat belts"

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