Government responds to M53 fatality report
The tragic death of teenager Jessica Baker in the M53 coach accident has prompted the Department for Transport and Department for Education to promise school seatbelt guidance in 2024.
The impetus was provided by Liverpool and Wirral Coroner, André Rebello OBE, who issued a Report to Prevent Future Deaths to both government departments. The formal document demands a response, setting out safety measures being taken, within a set time limit. On 15 December, The then Secretaries of State for Education and Transport – Gillian Keegan MP and Mark Harper MP, respectively – gave a response summing up current legislation and advice being given to schools and education authorities.
The response reveals that no current guidance refers to the wearing of seatbelts. The response lists, among other guidance, a statutory home-to-school document and ‘Health and safety: responsibilities and duties for schools’ issued in April 2022. None has any reference to the wearing of seatbelts.
The ministers have now pledged to build seatbelt advice into its THINK! Road safety campaign, which creates education materials for schools. The response says that the DVSA will also be reminding operators of their obligations to clearly inform passengers of the seatbelt regulation.
Andre Rebello OBE is due to report the inquest into the accident in March 2024.
The revelation that no government guidance has been issued on the wearing of seatbelts by school children until now is surprising, to say the least; the documents the ministers’ response mentions are almost exclusively about schools’ obligations for home-to-school and curricular transport but none, including a health and safety document, suggests educating children about the importance of wearing seatbelts.
It seems to have been left to schools to take this initiative, as our conversations with long-time seatbelt campaigner Pat Harris reveal; her BUSK campaign has laboured tirelessly to persuade both schools and parents that the importance of a seatbelt in the very rare event of a school ‘bus’ accident needs to be drummed into pupils throughout their time at school. Sadly, uptake for BUSK’s education materials is by no means ubiquitous.
As an industry, we can be proud of our exemplary safety record but freak accidents are unavoidable, whether the result of unpredictable circumstances or other road users. The accident may be unavoidable, but serious injuries are avoidable. Modern coaches are inherently strong but if passengers – whether school children or adults – are not restrained by a seatbelt, the results are predictably horrendous.
The DfT’s THINK! campaign is just a single strand in what should be a safety net of guidance, which should involve schools, parents and this industry. It is not in the coach industry’s interest to allow this issue to be ignored any longer. We will revisit this subject in 2024.