Fatal crash anniversary coincides with court hearing

As the Bus and Coach Association (BCA) prepared for its High Court Judicial Review, the latest step in its battle to secure fairer rules for community transport operations, bus and coach safety campaign BUSK highlighted the anniversary of a minibus crash that took the lives of a teacher and her 12 pupils.

This year is the 26th anniversary of the death of Claire Fitzgerald who died along with 11 of her friends and a teacher when the minibus she was travelling in crashed on the M40. The teacher had fallen asleep at the wheel according to the overwhelming evidence heard at the inquest.

Prior to the collision, the teacher driving the minibus had worked in school, then driven one of two minibuses to London without any other adult in her vehicle. She supervised the group en route, supervised them during the trip all evening before leaving London to drive back to Hagley RC School but fell asleep after 16.5-hours at work. She crashed into a motorway maintenance vehicle on the hard shoulder of the M40 at 12.25am.

There is concern that 26 years later the circumstances leading up to this tragedy remain unchanged.

The anniversary comes on the eve of a High Court case in London against the Department for Transport. The case against the DfT has been brought about by Martin Allen from the Bus and Coach Association.

The BCA is seeking to change the rules to ensure minibus drivers driving children on school trips are fully regulated. It also seeks to ensure fairer rules for community transport operators (CTOs), to eradicate what Martin sees as unfair competition between commercial operators and CTOs.

BUSK Director, Pat Harris, said: “What is actually happening is a massive commercial enterprise by the back door and it’s worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to organisations who are avoiding the legal duties of care responsible operators have.

“The practice encourages the operation of a systematic, deliberate and dangerous abuse of a process designed and intended for charity or voluntary group to operate without payment and purely on good will to facilitate community needs. The reality is very different to that, it’s a disgrace, it flies in the face of legal duties of care and puts vulnerable loved ones at risk every day. It is incredible that it’s been allowed to date, and it has to stop, and it has to stop now.”

Claire’s parents, Steve and Liz Fitzgerald, said in a statement: “The legal duties of care rightly imposed upon those in the commercial sector provide a high standard of safety to protect passengers, drivers and all other road users. Such stringent requirements are however not placed upon the ‘so-called’ non-commercial sector.

“This appalling practice puts children at risk to save money by putting costs before the safety of children and others. The DfT and local authorities cannot be oblivious to the reality that this puts thousands of children and others at serious risk every single day. It is offensive to the memory of all the young people and their teacher who died in 1993.

“It’s a disgraceful and deliberate abuse by those whom we should be able to trust and who should, quite frankly, know better. This is just wrong on every level.”

As B&CB went to press, the High Court case was taking place – read more on this next week.

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