Should school buses have seatbelts? Rollover crash in Ontario prompts new questions

Click to play video: 'Injuries sustained by 5 children in Woodstock bus crash only ‘minor’: OPP'
Injuries sustained by 5 children in Woodstock bus crash only ‘minor’: OPP
RELATED: A school bus carrying roughly 40 children was involved in a rollover crash on Tuesday morning. Though one of the five children injured was believed to be in critical condition, OPP Constable Randi Crawford has confirmed that all children sustained just “minor” injuries, adding that the road where the incident occurred will open again shortly – Mar 5, 2024

The Ontario government is facing calls to take a closer look at seatbelts and road safety for students after a school bus rolled over in Woodstock, Ont., on Tuesday morning.

The rollover happened with 40 students on the school bus and led to one being pinned underneath the vehicle, according to police. Five students were injured in the crash, although all their injuries were minor.

The bus driver, a 34-year-old from Oxford County, was charged on Tuesday with careless driving causing bodily harm, Ontario Provincial Police said. The accused is set to appear in court in April.

The dramatic collision sparked concern from across both sides of the aisle at the Ontario legislature in Toronto.

“This is the worst nightmare for any family. We’re very much thinking about the community that is impacted,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Tuesday.

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His opposition counterpart, Ontario NDP education critic Chandra Pasma, echoed the sentiment.

“The crash this morning is horrific, that’s one of the worst phone calls I can imagine getting as a parent,” she said. “I really hope the children who were injured recover swiftly.”

The crash also led to renewed calls to study safety on school buses, with potential measures including the introduction of seatbelts.

Transport Canada does not require seatbelts to be installed on school buses, leaving it up to provinces and bus companies to decide if they’re necessary.

Some experts say the way school buses are designed means they don’t need the added protection of belts, which could do even more harm in a crash.

The Canada Safety Council, for example, argues school buses have an “enviable safety record” without belts and says they are 16 times safer than travelling in a family vehicle.

The safety-focused non-profit said school buses are designed to include “passive safety,” with features to protect passengers including being bigger, heavier and lower to the ground.

Other features like high backs to seats and energy-absorbing seat material help with collisions, the group says.

“Research has shown that lap belts could actually increase the risk of head injuries in a head-on collision,” the safety council said in an information page on its website.

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The issue of who is responsible for strapping in young riders, or liable if they fail to do so, also makes the possibility of introducing school bus seatbelts more complicated. Other provinces, including Alberta and Manitoba, have taken the same stance as Ontario and have not mandated the measure.

Asked Tuesday if he was considering a renewed look at seatbelts on school buses, Lecce said the crash “just happened” and he wanted to allow the school to conclude an investigation.

The school associated with the bus crash in Woodstock was an independent school, limiting the oversight the Ontario government has over elements of its operation.

The Ontario NDP, however, said the government has long needed to consider safety on school buses and look into ways to improve it.

“This is not the only instance of a bus crash in the country that we’ve seen,” Pasma said.

“So I don’t think we need to know what happened in this particular instance to say, ‘Are there measures we could be adopting to make our children safer?'”

Karen McCrimmon, the Ontario Liberal education critic, said she was “firmly” in support of requiring seatbelts on school buses.

“Children’s safety is of the utmost importance for Ontario Liberals, and we believe the province should always look for new ways to make our education system safer,” she added.

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Pasma suggested that the turnover rate of school bus drivers in the province was a similar safety concern that could be addressed by increasing funding. The Ford government pointed to a $111 million increase in student transportation funding in the 2023-2024 year, among other spending, as evidence it is working to improve school transportation and safety.

The NDP education critic said she doesn’t expect the province to have an answer ready so soon after the crash but wants to see the work begin.

“Better to start looking at it now than after the next crash has happened,” she said. “Probably a few years ago would have been a better time.”

The Ministry of Education told Global News seatbelts on school buses, like other road vehicles, were ultimately the responsibility of the Ministry of Transportation.

A spokesperson for the provincial transportation ministry said Transport Canada is responsible for “setting safety requirements” on school buses.

“Ontario will continue to work with Transport Canada to explore other possible safety equipment measures to determine the best approach to enhance school bus safety in Ontario,” they told Global News.

The federal government has announced some pilot programs for seatbelts in school buses, with the Government of British Columbia opting in.

The Sudbury District School Board has also agreed to take part in the pilot, though Pasma said she believed the Ontario government as a whole should consider the move.

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The 2020 pilot was announced to include three-point seatbelts on a number of new school buses after a 2018 intergovernmental task force was created to examine school bus safety.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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