OTTAWA — A committee of MPs who probed bus-passenger safety in Canada has decided not to call for seatbelts to be installed in Canadian school buses, urging further study instead.
The House of Commons transportation committee launched an investigation into bus safety, including on school buses, following the deadly Humboldt Broncos crash in Saskatchewan last year that killed 16 people and injured 13.
The committee's final report includes a number of recommendations to beef up safety requirements for passenger buses, including long-distance coaches and municipal transit buses.
But the committee says conflicting evidence from experts about seatbelts on school buses points to the need for further study.
"Throughout this study, the committee heard from witnesses about the complexity of evaluating potential improvements to bus passenger safety," the report says.
"It was made clear to members that there is no 'silver bullet' that will definitively increase safety in all situations. Although seatbelts would undoubtedly prevent some serious injuries or fatalities, they are not the only solution to ensuring the safety of bus passengers in Canada."
The issue of installing seatbelts on school buses has indeed proved to be polarizing.
Industry groups that represent bus companies say the current design of school buses already makes them among the safest modes of transportation. Transport Department officials presented evidence that reinforcing the structure of school buses to support three-point seatbelts could undermine the compartmentalization system that helps school buses absorb an impact — a change that could increase the risk of injury.
Unions and associations that represent bus drivers raised concerns about liability when it comes to making sure children are properly belted for trips to and from school. They also said mandatory seatbelts on school buses would have significant operational impacts, such as an increase in transit times, which could exacerbate an ongoing driver shortage.
Cost is another complaint, with estimates for retrofitting school buses pegged at anywhere between $8,000 and $20,000 per bus.
In January, Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced a task force to look at the possibility of retrofitting school buses with seatbelts. It has involved the input of provinces, territories, school boards and school-bus manufacturers.
As part of its submission to the committee, the Ontario School Bus Association stressed the need for the task force to be given adequate time to complete a proper study, warning that a hurried probe would undermine the goal of making children on buses safer.
The committee said it supports the work of the task force and encouraged the government to "seriously consider" implementing any recommendations it generates.
But parents and concerned citizens across the country who have been calling for belts are getting impatient at being told to wait for more studies.
They point to deadly crashes over the years where children have died or sustained serious injuries in school bus collisions.
Gary Lillico, a bus driver in British Columbia, has amassed over 99,000 signatures on a Change.org petition calling for mandatory school bus seatbelts. He also recently helped organize a last-minute petition to be tabled in the House of Commons in the hopes of getting the government to act before the end of the school year.
He says he is disappointed MPs are passing the buck on this issue despite the evidence they heard.
"It's very upsetting that, after eight months, that they're just pushing this aside," Lillico said of the committee's findings.
"What is it going to take? How many lives? With the time they've had, there should be much more result."