DENLEY : Public transit poses real risks
As a result of the horrific bus crash at Westboro Station, people are asking if double-decker buses are unsafe. We are missing the bigger point. Every transit bus on the road has inadequate safety provisions. Public transit is a system that puts riders at risk by design.Every day in Ottawa, people ride on OC Transpo buses that go barrelling down the Queensway. Those lucky enough to get seats have no seatbelts. Passengers who are forced to stand can grip a strap or a metal rod, if they can reach one. Keeping your balance is a challenge every time a bus swings around a corner. The interior of the bus is full of hard metal surfaces, just waiting to injure a stumbling passenger. And yet car drivers using the same road are protected by mandatory seatbelts and an array of airbags.How can that make sense?Canada is finally waking up to safety on other kinds of buses. Transport Canada has decreed that all large and medium highway buses must have seatbelts by Sept. 1, 2020. In announcing the change, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said, “By having seatbelts on highway buses, we can help reduce injuries in severe collisions, such as rollovers, and improve safety for everyone.”Transport Canada hasn’t been as smart about school buses. In 1984, the federal agency conducted a study that concluded that school buses didn’t need seatbelts because, in the event of a crash, students would just bounce harmlessly off the high, padded seats.That odd conclusion held until a 2018 CBC investigation revealed an unreleased 2010 Transport Canada study that found school buses failed safety tests and did not do enough to prevent “serious injuries.”Enhanced transit bus safety remains a blind spot. It seems to be an issue that is neither studied nor discussed.Transport Canada is now looking at seatbelt safety in school buses, but former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne wants quicker action. She has introduced a private member’s bill in the Ontario legislature, calling for all new school buses to have seatbelts starting in 2020, and older buses to be retrofitted by 2025.Since 1999, 16 students have been killed in school bus accidents in Ontario and more than 6,000 have been injured. Improved safety for yellow school buses could be coming, but what about the thousands of students who use OC Transpo every day?Enhanced transit bus safety remains a blind spot. It seems to be an issue that is neither studied nor discussed.It’s not that difficult to see why government wants to look the other way. For public transit, adding seatbelts would be a major cost. School bus seatbelts would cost about $10,000 a bus. That would be a multimillion-dollar cost for OC Transpo alone.The bigger problem is what to do about standing passengers. The current model of articulated bus from the company New Flyer carries 59 passengers in seats and 57 standing. Were government to ban standing in buses, it would mean twice as many buses and twice as many operators to run a public transit system. The cost of a bus system where all riders had seats and seatbelts, and there was no standing in the aisle, is certainly unattractive.And yet, the way we approach transit passenger safety is a throwback from the era when people believed it was fine to let the kids roll around in the back of a station wagon, or that riding in the bed of a pickup truck on the highway was a smart thing to do.We don’t yet have enough details about last week’s Ottawa crash to know if seatbelts or no standing in the aisles would have reduced injuries or fatalities, but it’s not too soon to consider whether we need to make transit buses as safe as everything else on the road. It wouldn’t be cheap, but human life shouldn’t be, either.
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