Mother whose 11-year-old son died in school bus accident calls for seatbelts

OTTAWA — Denna Weston was among the first on the scene of a school bus collision that killed her 11-year-old son in Alberta 19 years ago.

It was a Friday in October. Jared, a Grade 6 student, was waiting for his turn to be dropped off. The bus passed right by his family home along Highway 22X, just east of Calgary, to drop off some other students before it was Jared’s turn.

But a pickup truck collided into the side of the bus with Jared and two other children aboard. When Weston and her neighbours arrived on the scene, one boy was partially out one of the side windows, a girl had exited the bus and her son was still inside.

The mother and her neighbours administered CPR until an air ambulance arrived, but Jared died on route to the hospital. The other two children survived their injuries.

“It was a long haul. And every time something happens, even the (Humboldt) Broncos accident, everything comes back,” Weston said in an interview this week.

There’s not a day that you don’t think about it.”

Weston has since acquired the complete RCMP accident reconstruction — a document she says she shouldn’t have, but that she needed to see to fully understand and cope with the devastating loss of her child.

“It clearly stated: had Jared been wearing a seatbelt, he would have lived,” Weston said.

Weston is among many parents, as well as bus drivers and other concerned citizens, calling for the federal government to make seatbelts mandatory in Canadian school buses.

They were hoping — and, indeed, many were expecting — to hear Transport Minister Marc Garneau announce this would finally happen last week when he addressed the media on the subject of school buses during a meeting of provincial transport ministers in Montreal.

Instead, he announced a task force to look at the possibility of retrofitting school buses with seatbelts. It will bring together provinces, territories, school boards and school bus manufacturers to look at “the implications of mandating the compulsory wearing of seatbelts,” Garneau said Jan. 21.

“The task force will look at vehicle standards and operations, both inside and outside the bus, with an emphasis on seatbelts,” Simon Rivet, a senior media adviser with Transport Canada said in a statement.

“This work involves expanding our evidence base, such as looking at fleet composition across Canada.”

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,” Rivet added.

But the idea of installing seatbelts in school buses has been met with some opposition.

Alex Bugeya of the Ontario School Bus Association says his organization welcomes the work of the task force, but has written to Garneau to stress that industry should be part of the discussions.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Bugeya said.

In Ontario, a driver is responsible for ensuring anyone under age 16 is wearing a seatbelt if one is present.

“How does that dynamic work when we’re dealing with a 72-passenger vehicle? Are we looking at the need for bus monitors?” Bugeya said, adding that evacuation procedures, loading times and route procedures are also important to consider.

And then there’s cost. Retrofitting older buses with seatbelts could require new seats, new anchorage requirements and other expensive structural adjustments.

“It’s not something we’re opposed to exploring. I think it’s a discussion that should take place, but it is something that has to happen in conjunction with a decision to mandate seatbelts.”

But Gary Lillico, a school bus driver in British Columbia, believes there have been enough studies done on this issue, and that more action is needed.

He pointed to a 2010 report, uncovered by a CBC investigation in October 2018, in which a researcher at Transport Canada concluded current compartmentalization safety features on buses are not enough to stop injuries, particularly in side impacts and rollovers.

Lillico has started a petition on Change.org calling for mandatory school bus seatbelts. It now has more than 50,000 signatures.

But he worries nothing will happen due to governments and school boards concerned about retrofit costs.

“What is the price of a life?” he said.

In Alberta, where she has to drive by the intersection where her son was killed every day, Weston says she is upset this issue has been raised for many years, and yet still school buses don’t have seatbelts.

“It’s frustrating that nothing has been done. And how many kids have died since?”

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