The bus industry will support the rollout of seatbelts on school buses - provided they don’t have to pay.
In a significant softening of its previous stance, the peak body representing private bus operators has conceded mandatory seatbelts on rural and regional buses is inevitable.
“The NSW bus industry certainly isn’t opposed to seatbelts on school buses…we want what our customers want,” said Bus NSW executive director Darryl Mellish.
“The operators want what the community expects and if that’s seatbelts, they will embrace it and change.”
The show of support represents a victory for road safety advocates who have repeatedly criticised bus companies for opposing earlier bids for mandatory seatbelt laws.
But it sets the scene for a showdown between the industry and the NSW government over who should foot the bill.
Previous estimates for retrofitting or replacing the school bus fleet range from tens of millions to more than $1 billion.
“We believe all the costs should be met by government,” Mr Mellish said.
He rejected the suggestion taxpayers should not be saddled with the cost of upgrading the assets of private enterprise. Some bus companies would encounter financial difficulty if they were not compensated, he warned.
The coach industry was given little government assistance to comply with a 1994 order that all new coaches must have seatbelts. Mr Mellish said that was an unfair comparison because coach operators had more freedom to raise fares and offset the cost.
“It’s an emotional issue…parents definitely feel if their children have seatbelts in cars they should have them in school buses (but) it requires a political decision though,” he said.
“The operators feel they’re a little bit like the meat in the sandwich.”
Since 2007, private bus operators have been able to apply for federal government grants to help retrofit buses with belts. Less than 300 school buses in regional Australia have been fitted with seatbelts as a result.
Last financial year, the government budgeted $6.4 million towards the program but spent less than one third of that.
Critics argue the low take-up rate is proof operators aren’t interested in improving student safety.
Goulburn-based operator Frank Culmone received $125,000 in funding to install belts on five buses earlier this year but had trouble sourcing quotes and getting the buses to Sydney for their rebuild. The installation deadline lapsed and the funding was revoked. He plans to apply again because parents and schools want seatbelts for their students, especially when on long-distance excursions.
“It’s just as much a business decision as it is a safety one,” Mr Culmone said.
Bus NSW is represented on a committee convened last year to investigate how school bus safety could be improved in NSW. Mr Mellish is the group’s representative.
NSW and Victoria are the only states in Australia with no formal policy on mandatory seatbelts.
Any decision to install seatbelts will have widespread ramifications for the injury.
The existing system where three young school students can be counted as two adults and children are allowed to stand in the aisle unrestrained would have to be scrapped, meaning the capacity of buses would fall and more would be needed to meet demand.
Mr Mellish said feedback to his group suggested drivers would not be held responsible if passengers did not wear the belts – a key legal concern for many operators.
“Enforcement has been one of those issues raised before but we believe it can be overcome with time,” he said.