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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 29728

Ms LIVERMORE (4:08 PM) —On 7 March this year a terrible thing happened at Gracemere, just outside Rockhampton. A bus was tipped over after it was clipped by a truck. Fifteen children and 11 of the adults on board were injured. Four children and two adults were actually hospitalised. The member for Fitzroy in the Queensland parliament, and a mate of mine, Jim Pearce, was one of the first on the scene, and the sight devastated him. When interviewed by WIN TV News, Jim wept. There must have been a lot of weeping that night. Parents were devastated. No child should be subjected to such a horrifying experience.

We in Rockhampton had those children and their parents in our thoughts. In particular, our hearts went out to 13-year-old Hannah Lewandowsky of Mount Morgan. Hannah was thrown through a window and was admitted to hospital unconscious and suffering a broken pelvis. Hannah is a brave girl. Thankfully, she recovered consciousness and was able to make a triumphant return to school at the Cathedral College. But her life, at least for the time being, has changed dramatically. She still experiences brain trauma and problems associated with this condition. I am pleased to say that the whole community has got behind Hannah and her family. Good things can come out of bad experiences, and we took heart in the fact that Central Queensland is a caring community.

A major issue arising from the accident was the matter of seatbelts in buses. It is appropriate that we debate this issue because we need to take a holistic view of how to enhance the safety of our children when going to and from school, whether they are travelling by bus, mum's or dad's car, cycling or walking. Parents need to be confident that, when their children leave home in the morning, they will arrive safely home that afternoon. While the bus involved in the Gracemere accident was not, strictly speaking, a school bus, research over the years has confirmed that school bus travel is the safest way students can travel to school. It is safer than travelling in the family car and much safer than walking or cycling.

Just days before the accident, the Labor government in Queensland had announced the formation of a task force to examine and further improve school transport safety measures in Queensland. The task force, headed by medical professional and Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, Dr Cherell Hirst, handed down its interim report last month. The task force will continue to consider submissions received from the community and consult with experts before reporting its recommendations within the next six months. If you are interested in the issue of school transport safety, I recommend that you read the report. The report looks at all aspects of school transport safety, not just bus safety.

On the matter of bus safety, seatbelts are just part of the story. That point is highlighted by the fact that, of the 10 bus related fatalities in the past 10 years, nine involved students walking to or from a stationary bus. It is true, however, according to a New South Wales Department of Transport report, that seatbelts reduced the risk of injury by up to 20 per cent, compared with a 50 per cent injury reduction when worn in cars. The point of the report is really that governments need to take care in making decisions. The Federal Office of Road Safety's 1995 guidelines for voluntary modification of existing buses and coaches to improve occupant protection pointed out that wall-side passengers restrained by belts can be at greater risk of side-wall intrusion or roof collapse in a rollover crash. So it seems that this is not as straightforward as it may first appear. A Rockhampton bus driver, contributing to the debate on seatbelts in buses, said that she was concerned that, had the children in the rollover at Gracemere been wearing seatbelts, they would have been left hanging upside down.

To refit buses with seatbelts is an extremely expensive exercise. Queensland Transport advises that bus operators who retrofitted seatbelts to existing buses paid between $110 and $660 per seat. Last year the Queensland government surveyed bus manufacturers and learned that the cost of fitting out one bus with lap belts was $10,000 and that lap-sash belts would cost $30,000 per bus. This is a large figure and may not achieve the safety outcome desired, because it is not only a matter of attaching the belts to the seats; seat and anchorage reinforcement is essential, otherwise, the belts will be useless if the seats collapse in a crash. Before we spend the money on what may well be a partially effective solution, we need to examine more comprehensive solutions. We cannot put a price on the safety of our kids, but we owe it to them and the children of the future to get this right.

The research compiled in this report demands that we recognise that the causes of death and injuries related to school travel are multiple. As decision makers and road users, we should not seek to take false comfort in convincing ourselves that there is only one solution to preventing injuries to children travelling to school. We should keep an open mind and be ready to consider a whole range of measures, from seatbelts to safety education, lower speed limits and the design of bus routes and bus stops. I agree with the member for Forde that all governments need to be concerned about the safety of our children, and this includes the federal government. I commend the member for Forde for bringing this issue to the attention of the House.