School bus crash - Transport policy must be examined

Tragic though it was, with the death of a 15-year-old boy, it was exceptionally fortuitous that there were no more fatalities in yesterday’s horrendous school bus accident.

There could have been substantially more, as 30 other people were injured in this single-vehicle accident on a bog road between Rahan and Clara in Co Offaly.

This was the national realisation - that the possible consequences of this desperate accident could have been considerably worse.

So potentially serious was it that the Midlands Accident Emergency masterplan was implemented and several ambulances from three centres attended.

The injured, who were aged between 15 and 17 years old, were taken to hospitals in Tullamore, Portlaoise and Athlone in a fleet of 10 ambulances.

Fate intervened on this occasion, as an A&E consultant said there were no very seriously injured children among those treated.

Miraculously, the accident did not result in more deaths and while there were injuries, none of them were life-threatening or very serious, although the Education Department’s National Psychological Service was made available to the school community.

The tragedy will cause the question of seat belts in school buses to be revisited. The question of whether seat belts would have prevented deaths became a major issue in the aftermath of the Navan schoolbus accident, in which another five students were killed.

Seat belts were not, of course, compulsory then and neither were the owners of the bus involved in yesterday’s accident legally obliged to have seat belts fitted in the vehicle.

Last summer, the Department of Education announced that all buses in the school transport system would be fitted with seat belts by the end of this year. This would appear to be on target.

Education Minister Mary Hanafin said the gardaí and relevant authorities would investigate all the circumstances of yesterday morning’s school bus crash in Co Offaly. All the circumstances should, possibly, include any feasible impact the current school transport policy may have had on this accident.

For whatever reason, this private bus was outside the scope of the department, having been hired by parents to bring the young people to school.

They may not have qualified for their children to be carried on the normal system, operated in the area by Bus Éireann on behalf of the department, because of particular circumstances which the policy does not cover. If that were the case, if the young people were precluded from participating in this scheme, then the department’s own parameters need to be reviewed urgently.

What needs to be kept in mind as a priority is the safety of the pupils, not just the economic factors that make this scheme viable or not.

Equally, where a private bus operator is employed to transport school children, then that operator should be obliged to provide the same standard of safety as the State now applies to carrying other school children.

This is something that Transport Minister Martin Cullen will have to consider because it is inequitable that some children should be placed at a disadvantage in such a vulnerable area.

This was the second serious accident within the space of a year involving a school bus, which has to be of major concern to the authorities.

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