Official news and social media stories about school bus seat belts and the Humboldt Broncos crash are creating a large amount of misinformation.
Melfort Saskatchewan is where the sentencing hearing is to begin with respect to the trial of Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. Sidhu was the truck driver who struck the Humboldt Broncos bus in the crash of April 6, 2018 that killed 16 persons.
At the same time the local newspaper in Melfort, The Melfort Journal, also published an article by Andy Blatchford of The Canadian Press, describing how the mother of an 11-year-old son who died in a bus crash 19 years ago was calling on the mandatory installation of seat belts on all school buses.
In both instances there is a large amount of misinformation being spread through various official and social media.
With respect to the Humboldt Broncos crash the focus has been exclusively on the fault of the truck driver. It has been said that an extremely long prison sentence is needed. There has also been a focus on mandatory truck driver training. But no one has said anything about the fact that the collision could have been avoided had the Saskatchewan Department of Transportation cleared the trees located at the south-east quadrant of the intersection where the crash occurred. Such clearing was required to create the essential visibility needed by both drivers to see each other before the crash. Affording such a “visibility triangle” at an intersection is standard procedure. It is known and applied throughout North America.
The Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) confirmed this requirement in their manual of 1986. The manual preceded a multi-fatal collision that occurred at the Humboldt Broncos crash site in 1997 in which 6 persons lost their lives. An inquest followed that 1997 crash and investigators could easily have recognized that the trees at the site posed a safety concern. Yet nothing was done until 21 years later when the Humboldt Broncos crash occurred. Finally, after that terrible crash the Transportation Ministry removed some of the trees.
Yet, no one has said anything about who made the decisions that led to the visibility obstruction. The investigators who examined the collision site in 1997 have not been identified. The various Ministry officials who decided to carry on and do nothing about the visibility obstruction for 21 years have not been identified. Persons employed by the Ministry were required to inspect the highways for potential safety hazards and they should have logged any such dangers. Does such a log exist? Did these inspectors make those required observations? Who were these inspectors? They have never been identified.
Meanwhile the opinions of authors of a mysterious “report” (likely the official police investigation of the Humboldt Broncos crash) were reported in recent summary of the trial proceedings. These authors have been quoted as indicating that the existence of the trees had no relevance to the crash. That is an incredible comment that needs to be examined. Yet the contents of the official police investigation have not been revealed. Even though Mr. Sidhu will likely be given a multi-year prison sentence, the basis for that punishment has yet to see the light of the pubic’s day.
The people or Melfort and those from the rest of Canada have been further misinformed by the second public pronouncement of the need for seat belts on school buses. It has been reported that as many as 50,000 persons have signed a petition and pressure is being applied to have Transport Canada mandate the installation of seat belts on school buses. This need has been perpetuated by a series of CBC documentaries placing blame on Transport Canada for failing to see the obvious need for seat-belts. The conclusion to be drawn by Canadians is that Transport Canada is filled with a multitude of incompetent bureaucrats who cannot understand this simple concept. There is nothing like a very simple and obvious thought placed in the minds of those who want, and are eager to hear that simple explanation. Once again the public has been deceived. Why would Transport Canada wait so long to require installation of seat belts? Is it really that they know nothing about reality, as the CBC and others have led the public to believe? What other reason could there possibly be?
A clue can be gained from a recent Canadian Press article of Andy Blatchford. Transport Minister Marc Garneau was expected to announce the mandatory installation of seat belts on school buses in an address to the media last week. But he did not. Instead he announced that a task force would look into “the implications of mandating the compulsory wearing of seatbelts”.
Implications? What implications? The CBC never told us about any implications. The issue was straightforward. Transport Canada simply could not put one foot ahead of the other. This should have been obvious to all Canadians. Or so we are told.
We see further in the Blatchford article the following phrase: Pilot projects will also be explored as a way to “help Transport Canada develop guidelines to assist school bus operators across Canada to make sure that seatbelts, when installed on school buses, are always worn properly by all occupants”.
That seatbelts “are always worn properly by all occupants”?. What does that mean and why has this been inserted? Is that important?
Well let us consider an example. Imagine that, as a parent, you deliver your kindergarten or first year child to the safety of the school bus. It is winter and you have ensured that your child is safely bundled up in the warmest and thickest coat. Your child is now buckled into the very safe seat belt. And away goes the bus…
What would happen 10 minutes later when the bus is involved in a “minor” frontal collision that has reduced the bus’s speed from 50 km/h to 25 km/h? This is a change-in-velocity of 25 km/h. That change-in-velocity occurs in about a 1/10th of a second. That is equivalent to a change-in-velocity of 250 km/h per second or 69.4 metres per second. The acceleration due to gravity is equal to 9.81 metres per second every second and this is commonly referred to as “g”. Dividing the 69.4 by 9.81 indicates that the bus experiences a deceleration just over 7 gs.
What does 7 gs mean? When we fall from a cliff our speed increases at a rate of 1 g. Thus after on second of free fall (ignoring air resistance) we hit the ground at a speed of 9.81 metres per second or about 35 km/h. So the acceleration of 7 gs is 7 times more severe than that. While this is a simplification for demonstrative purposes it demonstrates that there is a considerable opportunity to cause serious injury when a force equivalent to 7 gs must be absorbed by a vulnerable portion of a child’s body.
Now, the very safe lap portion of the seat belt that we have been discussing has been placed over the very warm coat of the child. In all honesty would anyone believe that there is nothing wrong with this scenario?
Let us go back a bit. Why do we place children in child seats and booster cushions? Because we like to spend money needlessly? No. It is because seat-belts are made to fit adult bodies, not the bodies of children. Even adults have a difficulty placing the lap portion of their seat belt at a low level, below the illiac crests of their pelvis. A lap belt placed above the illiac crests becomes placed onto very vulnerable organs where there is no structure until one reaches the very rear of the abdomen, at the spine. When we place such a narrow device onto a narrow portion of the abdomen that narrow lap belt now applies a much higher load (higher force) onto that narrow area. In other words, we are asking that narrow point of application to slow at least half of the child’s mass at a magnitude of 7 gs. Without the narrow application the child’s mass might strike the seat-back ahead of them and this broad application of the force could reduce the severity of injury. What becomes critical is that a thick or slippery winter coat only makes matters worse. Pre-tensioners have been developed in recent years whereby the typical slack that exists in seat-belt webbings is reduced when a vehicle sensor detects a sufficient deceleration and fires the pre-tensioner very much like the deployment of an air bag. While pre-tensioners will rapidly pull the lap webbing closer to the body they cannot pull the webbing down onto the illiac crests. So that is of minimal help in preventing abdominal injuries to a child.
The bottom line is that seat belts will not be worn properly by children on school buses. Transport Canada researchers know this. They have known this for decades. This why they had to make a hard choice that would injure some children but would reduce the overall level of injury severity. The choice was to keep the children in a compartment made up of the tall seats and “softer” padding so the impact force would be distributed. It also increased the difficulty for children’s bodies to be flung out of the side windows. This does not mean that there was no chance of this occurring: it means that the possibility of ejection was reduced as best that it could be reduced.
So what the public has not heard about is that seat-belts that are not worn properly can be dangerous. In some instances they can be more dangerous than not wearing a seat-belt at all. What the media are not understanding is that, overall, school buses are massive compared to the other objects that they may strike. School buses are likely to hit smaller vehicles such as passenger cars and light trucks. This means that the overall severity of the impact (i.e. the Change-In-Velocity) is going to be lower in comparison to cars and light trucks. This is why, in the overall picture, riding down high levels of deceleration is not as important on school buses than it is in smaller vehicles. This is the point that the public does not understand.
On the other hand Transport Canada has painted itself into a corner by not admitting that a problem exists, and has existed for decades, with respect to abdominal injuries caused by the lap portion of seat-belts. This danger has been kept quiet so that the public would accept the importance of wearing seat-belts that will benefit them in the vast majority of situations. The problem is particularly acute with respect to children and this is why child seats and booster cushions have become the norm. Transport Canada is now in a difficult position of trying to explain why they do not recommend the mandatory use of seat-belts on school buses without revealing the problem that exists. The true danger that presently exists is that Transport Canada would yield to public pressure and require mandatory seat belt usage on school buses without having a plan of how they will deal with improper seat-belt usage. It only needs one instance where a school bus full of young children is involved a crash resulting in a large change-in-velocity and the results could be catastrophic. Can one imagine 20 children with severe abdominal injuries that require immediate surgery? How will those children be transported to a major hospital in time and how many surgeons will be available to perform those like-saving surgeries. It simply will not happen.
It is important to think clearly about those issues that appear to be obvious and simple. When someone sells something that sounds too good to be true the old adage has always applied. Many obvious solutions are not obvious nor are they solutions. The Humboldt Broncos collision needs a full explanation of all the factors involved. Not because we want to punish the Saskatchewan government. It needs a full explanation so that we can make government officials accountable for their actions and so that future Broncos are not needlessly killed.
Similarly the discussion of seat-belts on school buses needs a properly educated discussion. The discussion is needed so that we do not endanger the lives of children who cannot protect themselves from the bad decisions that are made by persons who ought to know better. A plan must exist to protect children on school buses from sustaining abdominal injuries before we rush into buckling them into non-fitting seat-belts.