04 November 2014

S4M-11008 The Importance of School Bus Safety around Scotland

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-11008, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the importance of school bus safety around Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the importance of school bus safety around Scotland and what it considers the important work of Ron Beaty of Gardenstown, whom it congratulates for his efforts on this issue, specifically in relation to bus safety signs and bus visibility; considers that there is a very real danger of school pupils being injured if the situation at present is allowed to continue as it understands that recommendations from Transport Scotland are not being carried out across the country, and hopes that the need to ensure the safety of children across Scotland is urgently recognised, acknowledging that Mr Beaty first petitioned the Parliament on this matter in 2005.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Tonight, we are joined by my constituent Ron Beaty of Gamrie. He is far from unique in believing that we have a duty to protect our vulnerable and inexperienced young folk, but following the permanent disablement of his granddaughter in an accident in the vicinity of a school bus, he has been a ferocious champion of improving safety in our school transport system.

I have not been alone in supporting Ron. Members of the Public Petitions Committee, of all political parties and of none, have supported his efforts to improve public policy and practice. Today’s debate is an opportunity to revisit the issue, look at what has been achieved thus far and discuss what we now expect, which is important.

The issue is one not just for the Beaty family, with the pain that it has suffered, nor just for the north-east of Scotland, where we have seen too many accidents involving school students mounting or leaving school buses; it is an issue for all Scotland—both rural and urban Scotland.

Let us be clear: around two thirds of a million pupils make their way to around 2,700 schools each day, and a goodly number of those pupils use a bus. Youngsters are not naturally born with adequate appreciation of all the risks that they will meet in life. Motorised transport in particular presents challenges. Assessing the speed of approaching traffic and deciding whether it is safe to step on to a road are not skills that we are born with.

Buses add a further complication. They are big and are likely to obstruct one’s view of the road. Education authorities and bus operators that work with them to transport school students are acutely aware of the need to protect passengers, and other road users also have a role to play. This debate and, I hope, the commentary around it will help to remind us all of the need to exercise care near school buses, especially when they are stationary.

What can be done to help to alert drivers? There can be good, clear signage that the bus is a school bus. Crucially, that signage should be removed when the bus is not operating as a school bus. Our brains are alerted by changes in the environment. There is the psychological phenomenon of ennui—we no longer notice what we see all the time—so buses must look different when they are carrying school students, and only then.

There can be flashing lights on the bus to break into drivers’ attention, speed limits that can vary throughout the day, and lights to alert drivers to the need for reduced speed. Those exist already outside many schools throughout the country.

In Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen and Moray, a number of steps have been taken to improve safety, and Transport Scotland—Mr Beaty is not its greatest fan—has produced guidance for our 32 local authorities on how they can help to improve road transport safety. SeeMe technology has been trialled in Aberdeenshire. It causes flashing lights to switch on at bus stops as they detect people approaching the stop who are carrying a transponder. After it was established that there was no legal impediment to doing so, much larger school bus signage has been used. Aberdeenshire Council has made it a condition of school bus contracts that the signage must come off when the bus ain’t carrying school students.

Progress has therefore been made and lots of good things have been done by people of good heart.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD): I am grateful to Stewart Stevenson for bringing this important issue to the chamber. He is right to point to its being an issue across the country. Councillor Andrew Drever, who is one of the most tenacious campaigners on the issue in my constituency, has put forward the suggestion of banning the overtaking of stationary school buses. Has Stewart Stevenson been aware of that as a campaign strategy? What are his views on the efficacy of that?

Stewart Stevenson: I was not aware of Councillor Andrew Drever’s initiative specifically, although I have heard that suggestion in other places, and it is certainly worth considering. It is not, of course, within our gift in the Parliament to legislate to do that, but I will return to that subject a little later in my remarks with another suggestion that might have that effect.

With a greater focus on school transport safety in the north-east in particular, we have not seen a repeat of the string of very serious injuries that occurred a few years ago. Policy and practice changes may have contributed to that; or the very bad winters that closed down schools and, therefore, school transport and the comparatively mild winters, which reduced weather risks, may have been significant factors.

Either way, the questions are: is there more that we can reasonably do and do we know what to do? The answer to both questions really ought to be yes.

Perhaps the most important thing that the north-east experience tells the rest of Scotland is that the costs of addressing the issue are between nil and trivial. It just takes an increased focus on the issue. Therefore, we can and must do more, but what should we do?

We can put requirements into school bus contracts. I do not necessarily mean the existing contracts—it always costs a lot to change a contract—but certainly the new ones, which tend to be on a three-year cycle. We can make contractors provide better signage—not behind the bus window but outside the bus—and use it responsibly. We can also get drivers to use constant headlights when running and flashers when stopped.

We can do risk assessments and introduce 20mph speed limits where it will help. We can reconsider school travel plans and work with parents on bus routing, perhaps to arrange for pick-up and drop-off points to be at safer locations. They might need to be at different places in the morning and evening for individual kids because the bus might be coming from a different direction.

When I spoke in Alex Neil’s debate on school bus safety in November 2006—whatever else we can say about it, the issue is not new—I suggested that we could use bus signage that looked as if it were making a legal statement to other road users. We could have a big sign on the back of a bus saying “Don’t break the law” on line 1, “Don’t overtake this school bus” on line 3 and, on line 2, the word “please” in incredibly small print. That might give the effect of a legal request without the necessity of legislation. We never know.

Let us try to think of a few tricks that grab attention and make things happen. Let us innovate.

I congratulate Ron Beaty on his tenaciousness in keeping the issue alive. However, let us make sure that the actions of our Government and our councils mean that we keep youngsters alive so that Ron’s campaigning does not need to.


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