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MiniPlus Article
October 22 2018
By James Rudman

School minibuses 25 years after the M40 crash

It’s almost 25 years since the M40 minibus crash that claimed the lives of 12 schoolchildren and their teacher. The parents of one child and campaign group BUSK say changes have not gone far enough

The M40 crash, in November 1993, killed 12 children and their teacher

The parents of a 13-year-old girl killed in the M40 minibus crash almost 25 years ago are joining forces with BUSK for a new campaign highlighting continuing concerns about the safety of school transport.

A particular focus will be on teachers acting as minibus drivers and schools needing to be on a level playing field with commercial operators in terms of standards.

Liz and Steve Fitzgerald along with BUSK, which marks its own 25th anniversary this year, are urging parents, carers, grandparents, teachers and “all concerned within the wider community” to take note and ask questions of their school to be satisfied that “the best possible standards” are being adhered to concerning the safe transport of children.

They are also calling on Parliament, the government (particularly the Departments for Education and for Transport), teachers’ unions and the transport sector “to work together to improve safety for children and young people.”

Media coverage

Facing the 25th anniversary of the accident, which claimed the life of their daughter Claire, 11 of her friends and their teacher, all from a school in Hagley, Worcester, and which received widespread media coverage, brings “immense sadness, naturally, but also incredulity and frustration,” the couple say in a statement.

Partly in response to the tragedy, legislation has changed requiring seatbelts to be fitted and to be worn. Crew-type minibuses have also been banned from carrying children and many schools have improved training for teachers who act as drivers, the Fitzgeralds acknowledge.

“However, while important, none of these improvements address the principal cause of the accident, which was long and stressful working hours for teachers who also act as volunteer drivers.”

The Fitzgeralds highlight the M40 accident inquest, where the coroner concluded that the main cause was that the teacher driving the minibus fell asleep at the wheel. They had taught in the school and then drove and supervised pupils over a total period on duty of over 16 hours.

Minibuses have come on in 25 years, but has legislation for drivers too?

“That the principal reason for an accident that led to the largest loss of young people’s lives in a road traffic accident in the UK has still not been addressed and rectified is abhorrent,” they say.

Campaign launch

The safety campaign, organised by BUSK in conjunction with the Fitzgeralds, will be launched on 18 November, 25 years since the accident. Full details will be unveiled for a 12-month plan aimed at having a UK-wide reach.

“It will be a BUSK campaign but motivated by what the Fitzgeralds say and their vision for the future of students being driven in minibuses. I couldn’t agree with them more,” says BSUK founder and Director Pat Harris.

“We want to deal with a number of things. We want to deal with the root cause of the crash 25 years ago, and highlight the fact that some things haven’t changed.”

Pat campaigned tirelessly and successfully to have seatbelts introduced to accommodate school children travelling on minibuses and coaches.

“It’s no good having seatbelts and it’s no good having a high standard of vehicle if the circumstances that caused the crash still haven’t changed along with everything else,” she says.

Level playing field

What is needed is for teachers driving children in a school-owned minibus to have a vocational licence and be subject to tachograph regulations, Pat continues. “In BUSK’s view, teachers should be fully qualified if they are to drive pupils in a school-owned minibus and they should work to the same standards and meet all of the legal requirements of an O-Licence holder.

Pat Harris: Schools operating minibuses should observe high standards

“That includes a PSV driving licence, Driver CPC card and the school using a qualified Transport Manager. What we need is for all schools to be governed in the same way that a commercial operator is governed.”

BUSK’s founder says “it is not right” for any child or vulnerable passenger to be placed in a minibus that is driven by someone who is not trained adequately, who does not understand the laws surrounding driving it or the seatbelt legislation and who does not know what to do in an emergency situation.

“We need to get rid of this two-tier system. We need things to all be on a level playing field. The same high standards should be afford to every minibus passenger and not just to those that are carried by the commercial sector.”

Questions to ask

“What the Fitzgeralds want is for parents and carers to be more aware of the questions that they should be asking their child’s school if teachers are driving,” says Pat.

“They shouldn’t assume that the school is operating legally, and they shouldn’t assume that the teacher is happy to drive. They should ask the teacher: ‘Do you have any reservations about driving this minibus?’”

The Fitzgeralds and BUSK also want teachers’ unions to take a more proactive role and ensure that their members understand that they don’t have to drive. “It is not part of their job to drive, but if they are going to, they have to be happy about it and they must be adequately trained. They have to know what they are doing and they have to understand the law,” she continues.

“Schools need to understand very clearly - and the FItzgeralds are adamant about this - all the legalities of minibus operation. At the moment, most do not.”

Section 19 permit awareness

A 2017 survey by Castle Driver Training, the training arm of Bicester-based Castle Minibus, found that over 70% of the 300-plus schools quizzed were unaware of the obligations placed upon them by the issue of a section 19 permit.

A memorial garden to the dead in Kidderminster has been forgotten

Most had never heard of the permit, despite owning and operating minibuses. “From when they talk to me, I know that

Pat Harris’s coach and bus

a lot of schools are unaware of their legal obligations,” says Pat.

One example came a few years ago. A school told her that it had eight minibuses and that teachers drove them as far as France and Germany. It was shocked when she explained that they were being driven with invalidated insurance, as a section 19 permit only allows vehicles to be driven in the UK.

BUSK also has concerns about schools operating illegally when they run a commercial bus service using a permit.

The organisation offers free advice and information on its website that can be useful to parents, teachers, schools and drivers about safely transporting school children.

Pat is also keen to offer free legal advice obtained through a legal firm that acts as BUSK’s honorary solicitor to school governing bodies and teachers so they understand their legal obligations.

“Any teacher, governing body or school head who has taken it upon themselves to transport children should make it their business to find out what the law requires, as a commercial operator has to. If they can’t do that, they have no business transporting children. And they have no business asking teachers to drive when a lot would prefer not to.”

Who is Pat Harris?

Pat Harris’s coach and bus industry connections date back to her childhood in a small town outside Belfast.

When she moved to Wales and had three children, all of which attended the local primary school in Usk, her focus was drawn to school transport. It followed her youngest child, then aged four, being hurt while travelling on a school minibus.

In February 1993 she established BUSK - which stands for Belt Up School Kids - to act as a pressure group to bring about legislation so school children travelling in coaches and minibuses would be provided with a three-point seatbelt, that would end the ‘three for two’ rule, and require adult supervision on a journey.

25 years on, BUSK is still operating. For the last 10 years, it has been a company that still provides free information and advice and undertakes campaigns and investigations.Pat is its only full-time employee with one-third of her time dedicated to campaigning, but she contracts people such as trainers when required.

The successes Pat points to include campaigning to get the seatbelt legislation. “Even though it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, it was a start.” She says helping to prevent First Bus introducing the iconic yellow school bus in the UK was a further “huge milestone” for BUSK. The organisation also runs the Benchmark scheme for the coach and minibus industry, holds an annual safety week and is an approved DCPC training centre.

Now 62, Pat things BUSK needs to continue. “There are still so many things to be challenged, and so many people to be educated about what needs to be done.”

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