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Seatbelt update

From February 10, 1997 seatbelts must by law be fitted to any minibus carrying children between 3 and 16 years of age. The legal requirements, though, will be very basic. Two-point (lap only) belts will comply, for example, and there will, it seems, be no requirement that the supplier holds a certificate saying the installation has been officially tested.

The law sets down the minimum. Lap belts are better than nothing, but even so they are capable of inflicting abdominal injury, especially if carelessly worn. Try not to settle for anything less than three-point (lap and diagonal) inertia reel belts on every seat. Minibuses from major manufacturers have, since about 1994, been designed from scratch with lap and diagonal belts. A new minibus, though, will cost around Pounds 20,000, and many schools are unwilling or unable to spend this money when existing vehicles have lots of life in them. However, the "retro-fitting" of full lap and diagonal belts to an existing minibus is difficult, and the issue can cause much confusion among heads and governors. So what is the position?

The bottom line is this. If your minibus came with only lap belts, or no belts at all, then you should assume that the proper fitting of lap and diagonal belts to the same safety standard as a new vehicle from say, LDV or Ford, will cost you several thousand pounds. The reason is that in a minibus, belts are usually fitted to the seats. Therefore the belts are irrelevant unless the seats, and their anchorages are strong enough to take a collision strain measured in tons. There is a standard test for the whole installation - not legally required, but observed by the major manufacturers.

This is done by crash testing at an official testing station and observed and certified by the Government's Vehicle Certification Agency. Reaching this standard on a vehicle not originally designed for it is a major engineering challenge.

Of course, many installers - and there are around 70 of them around the country - will put three-point seatbelts into virtually any vehicle, often at very reasonable cost, and will claim their installations are safe.

However, if you want objective evidence that a retro-fit lap and diagonal seatbelt installation will stand up to a crash, you need to see a certificate showing that it has passed the EEC crash test specified earlier. Such an installation - the MMUDEK system is the best known example - will have involved substantial work on the structure of the vehicle and then the bolting in of a set of new safety seats. It cannot be cheap, but it is much cheaper than buying a new bus.

To underline the problem, the parent pressure group BUSK (Belt Up School Kids) has found companies which will make misleading claims about the effectiveness and safety of their seatbelt installations. One firm, used by local authorities, claimed that its installation was officially tested. What they did not say, and what BUSK discovered, was that it had failed the test.

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