Most parents go to a lot of trouble to keep their children safe on the school car run. The youngsters are in the back, safely belted; the car is regularly serviced and is loaded with safety features. But what about the children who travel to school by bus or coach? Is their journey as safe as parents have the right to expect? Does the vehicle have seatbelts? Do the brakes work? Do the tyres have tread on them? Do the doors latch properly? Is the driver sober?
Many parents would be surprised that such basic questions even have to be asked. But Operation Coachman, a nationwide police check on school contract vehicles carried out earlier this year, found buses and coaches where the answer to at least one, and sometimes more, of the above questions was a firm "no".
One driver was arrested for being over the alcohol limit. A small bus used for transporting children with special needs had seats that, when leaned on, pulled the floor up so passengers were staring down at the road. Another had a back door that would not shut and which had been like that for months. Others had bald tyres, faulty steering, inefficient brakes, dangerous suspension, loose seats and missing mirrors.
Of the 4,000 vehicles checked, nearly 200 were ordered off the road and many more were served with defect notices. Several contracts were terminated on the spot. In one typical county, Hampshire, 30 of the authority's 308 vehicles were immobilised, 18 were given defect notices, the operators of 69 were reported for offences, and 45 were the subject of cautions.
Behind the police checks are some official statistics that reveal an alarming rise in bus and coach accidents on routine journeys to and from school. The figures, which exclude such high-profile accidents as the Hagley High minibus crash in which 12 children and one teacher died, show that in the period 1991 to 1996 accidents doubled from 30 to 67 a year.
Why are so many vehicles in such a dangerous state? Part of the answer is money: local authorities seek to cut costs; private operators try to make what profit they can. Dave Rogers, road safety adviser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, says: "Many local authorities are driving tender costs down. This means that some firms are using elderly vehicles which are at the bottom of the heap before junking."
For their part, the police are reluctant to criticise local authorities. Operation Coachman was a nationwide example of the kind of co-operation between police and education authorities that is becoming common at a local level.
As well as carrying out pre-emptive operations, the police respond to complaints from schools or parents. When the West Midlands force receives a complaint, the company concerned is visited by vehicle inspectors who examine the entire fleet.
Constable Bob Nockalls, of the West Midlands police force, tells how one parent - himself a policeman - went to see his son off on a school bus and was horrified by the condition of the vehicle. "It was a shed on wheels," says PC Nockalls. "He (the parent) played up so much they had to change it for another one."
Staffordshire is one authority that takes the problem so seriously that it spends pound;8 million a year on school transport. Its assistant education officer, Nick Tushingham, says: "We operate an approved list of transport contractors. Before they are allowed on the list, we go to their premises with government inspectors and check out all their vehicles. Then, when the contract is running, we carry out regular spot checks at schools."
This system has been in operation for three years. "At first we were getting a high percentage of faults," says Mr Tushingham. "It wasn't uncommon to have 30 to 40 per cent prohibition notices. Now it's much better - the contractors are aware that standards are being enforced."
Staffordshire has also decided children should be carried on seatbelt-only transport, so closing the coach-into-bus loophole (see box above), and this year it took the unusual step of acquiring and running seven vehicles of its own. This has been done partly to save money in Stafford itself where transport contract costs are particularly high, and partly to demonstrate to contractors the level of efficiency and safety the authority is looking for.
The tender for the new vehicles was won by the Bluebird Corporation of Georgia, in the US, which builds the yellow schoolbuses familiar to anyone who has visited the States or watched an American television series. Staffordshire's 60-seater buses, which cost pound;90,000 each, are built to British specification, with right-hand drive, but have American safety features, which are of a standard rarely seen in this country. They have three-point seat belts, seats tested for strength, a rigid steel frame for safety in rollover incidents, and anti-locking braking systems. Importantly, every window is an emergency exit.
The authority decided to keep Bluebird's yellow livery, rather than have its own paintwork, feeling that the pupils would like the new "transatlantic" look. They were right. The contrast with PC Nockalls's shed on wheels could not be greater.
WHEN IS A COACH NOT A COACH?
When in February 1997 seatbelts became compulsory for minibuses and coaches carrying children, it was assumed that not only would every child be belted in, but it would no longer bepossible to carry three children on a double seat.
However, there is a loophole in the legislation: it applies only to coaches, not buses, so somecontractors save the cost of fitting seatbelts by converting their coaches into buses. All this requires is the fitting of a speed limiter so that the vehicle cannot exceed 60mph.
"With a limiter fitted, the traffic commissioners will issue a certificate to say it's now a bus," says Dave Rogers of RoSPA. "It's a sad state of affairs. We all assumed when the regulations came in that it would make transport to and from school more safe. It will probably take another nasty crash before something is done about it."
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Any coach or minibus which is on what the law calls an "organised trip", with three or more children aged between three and 15, must have a forward-facing seat with a seatbelt for each child.
An organised trip is any coach or minibus journey, even one on which the driver is a parent, where there are three or more children on board, and carrying the children is the main purpose. This therefore excludes regular services which would run regardless of whether there were children on board. It does include coach and minibus services specially run to take children to and from school.
* The requirement for forward-facing seats affects those minibuses which have rear or side-facing seats. These seats cannot be used by children, though escorting adults can sit in them.
* The requirement is only for lap belts. Modern minibuses and some coaches have three-point lap and diagonal belts which are superior. Older coaches, however, lack a strong enough upper anchorage for the diagonal belt, and a lap belt is the only possibility.
* There is no legal requirement for the belts to be worn. This is because of the difficulty of deciding how and by whom it would be enforced.
* The requirement for seatbelts effectively removes, for coaches, the three-on-a-double-seat concession that has often been made to save transport costs.
* A bus, as opposed to a coach, is not covered by the seatbelt legislation. A coach weighs more than 7.5 tonnes and can exceed 60mph. A bus is lighter and is restricted to 60mph.
* BUSK (a pressure group campaigning for school transport and minibus safety) can be contacted on 01291 672488
* Department of the Environment pamphlet on minibus and coach seat belts. Reference number VSE196
* RoSPA Edgbaston Park, 353 Bristol Road, Birmingham B5 7S. Tel: 0121 248 2000