Principal Mark Ashby had two options when buying a second-hand bus for the newly established Mandurah Baptist College.
One: settle for a bus without seatbelts. Two: spend an extra $5000 and snap one up with belts already installed.
His decision to opt for the latter paid off when, in 2005, the bus laden with 28 students collided with a truck about 60 kilometres south-west of Perth.
Dozens were injured – several seriously – but none were killed. The seatbelts were billed as lifesavers.
“The bus rolled over and without those seatbelts, the students would have been thrown everywhere,” Mr Ashby said this week.
“I hate to think about the spinal and head injuries and probable fatalities we would have seen.”
The smash highlighted the absence of seatbelts on other buses and stirred so much community outrage that within two weeks, the-then Geoff Gallop-led Labor government signed up to a phased rollout of seatbelts in all school buses.
Western Australian is now in the final stage of the logistically and financially challenging task of fitting hundreds of the buses with belts.
By 2010, every government-owned bus had been retrofitted or replaced entirely at an estimated total cost of $53 million.
The government has also refused to do business with private bus companies that do not have seatbelts on their vehicles, leaving them with little choice but to adapt or lose vital contracts. By July 2012, nearly 716 buses out of 923-strong contracted fleet had seatbelts. Five years earlier, just 139 did.
But the NSW and Victorian fleet is far times larger than WA’s and any rollout would thrust significant strain on the already stretched transport and education budgets. It would also trigger a stoush with private bus companies. The average cost of retrofitting one bus in WA varied between $26,000 and $71,000, while new ones cost $300,000.
Professor Gallop, the WA premier from 2001 to 2006, has now called on the NSW and Victorian governments to adopt a widespread rollout but cautioned parents and road safety advocates to be patient.
“There’s no question it’s never going to happen overnight but (the governments) should at least commit to a staged rollout,” he said.
“Electorates understand the logistical and administrative challenges around something like this. They appreciate it takes time.”
The Gallop government initially announced a five-year rollout but that was soon extended to 2015.
“The timeframe was expanded to 10 years because retrofits – as well as being very expensive – proved virtually impossible on many buses without what effectively would have been a complete rebuild,” said David Hynes, the acting corporate communications manager for the Public Transport Authority of WA.
“Some retrofits were carried out; in all other cases, factory-fitted seatbelts are ordered with new (or) replacement buses.”
Have the new seatbelts saved lives?
“The outcome cannot be measured,” Mr Hynes said.
“We had had no fatal/serious injury accidents before the introduction of mandatory seatbelts and we have had none since.”
The death of nine-year-old Harry Dunn in a horror bus smash in Singleton last month has put the NSW Government under renewed pressure to follow WA’s lead.
Harry was ejected from the bus when it collided with a truck. The bus was not fitted with seatbelts.
A committee of road safety experts, transport operators and parents and school associations is expected to hand down the findings of an 18-month investigation into how best to transport children in NSW shortly.
Victoria is the only other state or territory in Australia that has not committed to mandatory seatbelts.
BUCKLE UP: How the rollout progressed on WA’s contracted buses
2011/12 – 716 buses with seatbelts
2010/11 – 588 buses with seatbelts
2009/10 – 499 buses with seatbelts
2008/09 – 374 buses with seatbelts
2007/08 – 288 buses with seatbelts
2006/07 – 139 buses with seatbelts