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Safety: Belt up at the back

Every school must know by now that minibuses carrying children under 16 to and from school and on organised school trips must, by law, be fitted with seatbelts. The law became effective in February this year. In practice, though, it seems likely - such has been the publicity about minibus safety in recent years - that most schools will have had belts in their minibuses for some time.

There are some outstanding issues, though. One is that the law, strangely,still does not require children to wear the belts. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has been pressing the Government to name a date for resolving this anomaly. Again, in practice, common sense says schools will make sure the belts are used. At the Motor Show last October, minibus manufacturer LDV demonstrated a system which has a dashboard display to warn the driver if any of the passengers are not wearing their belts. Perhaps such devices will become common.

Another loophole, according to RoSPA, is that minibus seatbelts, unlike those in cars, are not inspected as part of the MOT test. It advises that schools should ask for this inspection, using criteria applied to cars, when the minibus goes for its MOT.

There is also, according to Dave Rogers, RoSPA's road safety adviser, the continuing issue of the way belts and seats are fitted, especially when they are an addition to vehicles which were built without them. "Older vehicles were not designed with seatbelts in mind, " he says. "In some cases, belts fitted after manufacture may not stand up to the stresses and strains of a crash. It is no use having seatbelts if they don't work."

This is a recurring problem and there have been many horror stories of seat belts badly fitted to unsuitable seats. In the worst cases, such installations can be worse than useless because of the way they will collapse in a crash.

Another provision of the new seat belt law - of which schools may not always be aware - is that the children's seats must be forward facing. The main pupose is to stop the use of cheaper "crewbuses", which have simple, inward-facing bench seats running down each side.

But some reputable firms that convert vans into minibuses have commonly squeezed in extra passengers by installing two or four seats facing sideways or backwards. Some of these conversions have been popular, and there may well be schools that do not realise their buses have seats which will have to stay empty or be used only by teachers. In some ways it seems a pity that this law aimed at inward-facing seats has also mopped up rear-facing ones.

Other things being equal, properly mounted safety seats that face backwards are arguably even safer because of the support they provide in a collision. (All RAF transport aircraft once had rear-facing seats for this reason). Although the industry is lobbying on this issue, it is unlikely to force yet another change in the law. For the moment at least, RoSPA's attitude is that "We're just glad to have got rid of side-facing seats."

One head who has a minibus with four rearward-facing seats that cannot be used by children is negotiating with the supplier for a modification that will provide 16 forward-facing seats - one fewer than at present. "On the other hand, " he says, "I might get the governors to agree to trade the minibus in for a new one."

If they decide to do this, they will find the choice has recently been extended significantly by Ford's factory-built 17-seater Transit, announced at the Motor Show in October and now coming into service.

It has a slightly longer body than the existing 15-seater, and manages to accommodate 17 forward-facing seats. All seats, of course, have seatbelts, and the whole seat installation is up to the most exacting national crash-tested safety standards.

With power steering, a light clutch and excellent gear change this minibus is just as easy to drive as the old one. It will give confidence to teachers whose main driving experience has been in cars. The same vehicle is also available with automatic transmission. This makes the drive even easier and perhaps a little safer, which is something for governors to bear in mind - although the advantage has to be balanced against extra cost.

This new Transit, incidentally, has several security features that make it more theft and intruder-proof than before.

Prices for the 17-seater Ford Transit school minibus are: #163;24,245 (petrol); #163;25,090 (diesel); for the 15-seater #163;23,665 (petrol); #163;24,510 (diesel). This includes lettering, driver training and mobile phone if required. Details: 01345 111888

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