Between seatbelts and a hard place

By Hal Mattern

Motorcoaches are highly safe, but Canadian companies are struggling to get message out

Hockey is king in Canada, and the country’s love for the sport was never more apparent than in the aftermath of a fatal 2018 collision involving a motorcoach carrying the Humboldt Broncos youth hockey team.

Sixteen passengers, including players and their coach, died in the crash, which was caused when a semi-truck collided with the motorcoach on April 6 in Saskatchewan.

The accident shocked and captivated Canadians, and the story rocketed to the number one spot in the nation’s media last year. It also helped spark a nationwide call for seatbelts on motorcoaches that has left operators scrambling to prepare for a major hit to their businesses as they work to get the message out about just how safe motorcoaches are—seatbelts or no.

“Hockey is very much in everyone’s DNA up here,” said Larry Hundt, owner of Great Canadian Holidays & Coaches in Kitchener, Ontario. “That’s one of the reasons this became the biggest story in Canada.”

The issue of seatbelts on motorcoaches isn’t new in Canada and has in fact been percolating for several years. Every time there is a major bus crash, news stories focus on seatbelts, whether or not they were a factor in the accident, says Doug Switzer, president and CEO of Motor Coach Canada, an industry trade association. “That is always their first question: Did the bus have seatbelts?”

But the fact that the Humboldt crash involved a youth hockey team made the story even more compelling, Switzer said. Since the accident, Transport Canada, which regulates the nation’s transportation industry, announced it would make seatbelts mandatory on all new motorcoaches beginning in September 2020. The agency had proposed such a mandate in 2017 but the Humboldt crash apparently expedited the new rule.

The crash also has prompted parents, school boards, sports leagues, university athletic associations, the Boy Scouts and other groups to require that all motorcoaches they hire be equipped with seatbelts. (The bus in the Humboldt crash had seatbelts, but most of the passengers apparently weren’t wearing them at the time of the crash.)

Because an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the motorcoaches in Canada have no seatbelts, operators are concerned that there won’t be enough buses with seatbelts to meet demand during the peak season for school- and sports-related travel this spring and summer. Some smaller operators that have older equipment might have only a few motorcoaches with seatbelts or none at all. That could be a major problem if they rely on contracts with sports and school groups.

“It’s a pretty ugly can of worms we are dealing with,” Hundt said. “It’s not a problem that we can snap our fingers and it goes away tomorrow.”

In an effort to avoid losing business, Canadian operators are stressing to potential passengers that motorcoaches are the safest mode of ground passenger transportation. According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s annual “Road Safety Annual Report,” out of 775 fatal collisions in 2016, buses (including transit) were only involved in six.

“It is very safe to travel on a bus, with or without seatbelts,” Switzer said. “Yes, seatbelts are good and the industry supports them. We have been lobbying for them for years. But they aren’t the be-all, end-all. They are being portrayed now as a magic bullet, but they don’t prevent all fatalities.”

Further inflaming the debate over seatbelts was a 2018 television report by CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., revealing that Transport Canada had known 17 years earlier that seatbelts on motorcoaches could save lives. After four teens were ejected from a motorcoach and killed during a 2001 crash in New Brunswick, a coroner’s jury strongly urged that seatbelts be installed in motorcoaches to prevent such passenger ejections. Transport Canada never acted on that recommendation.

CBC also discovered that Transport Canada had further studied the New Brunswick crash and concluded in a report that the absence of seatbelts on passenger coach buses “may be placing occupants at undue risk of injury during a collision. Had these occupants been wearing seatbelts, they would not have been ejected.”

That report was never released to the public.

“The ‘secret’ report said that in most accidents, but not all, passengers would be better off with seatbelts on,” Switzer said. “The report inflamed the situation, but it didn’t cause it. It was just more grist for the media and lawyers.”

The decision by Transport Canada to require seatbelts on all new motorcoaches in 2020 is similar to the mandate that took effect in the U.S. in 2016. But both mandates are more symbolic than anything because coach manufacturers have been installing belts on new buses for nearly a decade.

Switzer estimates that it will take another decade for older coaches without belts to be replaced by new ones with belts. Retrofitting older coaches with seatbelts is often proposed as a solution, but it is considered too costly and, if not done properly, more dangerous than not having seatbelts at all, he said.

And even when buses are equipped with seatbelts, most passengers don’t bother wearing them, including the young hockey players killed or injured in the Humboldt crash. One of the injured players told CBC that wearing a seatbelt on long bus rides is uncomfortable and people like to move around and talk to their buddies during the trip.

Hundt, who is a member of the United Motorcoach Association board representing Canada, said operators have a lot of work to do to educate people about coach safety.

“People who watched [the CBC report] don’t think we are safe,” he said. “What they don’t know is that we are safer than cars, even though cars have seatbelts. That’s the story we have to tell.”

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