Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ottawa Citizen Asks: Is Anybody Listening?

After the 2008 highway tragedy that killed seven members of a high school basketball team, a coroner's inquest came up with a compelling set of best practices for extracurricular travel at Canadian schools. So why have none of the safety recommendations been adopted? Richard Foot investigates.

(Click here to read the full story in the Ottawa Citizen)

Across Canada this academic year, schools will send millions of children to extracurricular activities in vehicles considered unsafe, and with drivers deemed unqualified by a coroner's jury that examined the deaths of seven high school athletes in 2008.

Nearly two years after the tragedy, only Quebec and New Brunswick have made significant changes to the way children travel to off-site school events.

A Canwest News Service investigation also shows that the changes called for by the inquest in May are being largely ignored. None of the major safety recommendations has been adopted by the federal government, or any province.

Every provincial government, plus 37 urban and rural school districts from coast to coast were surveyed. Many school districts reported tightening travel policies in the wake of the accident. Yet research reveals a hodgepodge of practices and standards across the country.

For example, some jurisdictions don't require snow tires or ask volunteers or teachers to have specialized training before driving students. Some demand twice-a-year inspections on vehicles, others settle for occasional inspections.

Only Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia ban schoolchildren from travelling in 12- and 15-seat passenger vans -- the type that crashed in 2008 -- called "death traps" by the Safety Forum, a U.S. consumer watchdog.

Canwest also surveyed the inter-schools athletic associations in all 10 provinces, none of which has made efforts to minimize the amount of winter travel required of high school teams, despite a call by the inquest for safer winter game schedules.

"Our lives are beyond repair since that horrible night," says Isabelle Hains, one of seven mothers who lost sons in the accident. "My hope was that their death could lead to a lot of changes for every school across the nation, but I sometimes wonder, is anybody listening?"

Schoolchildren in Canada are subject to two different, and contradictory, legal standards on transportation. The law in every province requires school boards to use only yellow school buses -- the safest vehicles on the road -- when transporting students between home and school. About 36,000 yellow school buses take 2.5-million students, more than half Canada's kindergarten to Grade 12 population, to school every day, according to the trade journal School Transportation News.

Some provinces also allow municipal transit buses, and permit smaller vehicles to pick up students in remote, rural areas.

In every case, a tough regulatory regime governs the system. In contrast, a regulatory vacuum surrounds school transport to sporting events, band performances, field trips and other activities.

"Why don't the same rules apply?" asks Hains. In January 2008, 17-year-old Daniel Hains and six other members of the Bathurst High School basketball team were killed, along with the wife of their coach, when their van collided with a transport truck as the team was driving home late at night from a game.

"It's hard to put into words the shock waves it sent through the school-sporting community across the country," says Stephen O'Rourke, a longtime coach and athletic director at Fredericton High School.

(Click here to read the rest of this story in the Ottawa Citizen)