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'Culture of riding buses needs to change': Highway-bus passengers urged to wear seatbelts

Four killed, dozens injured in bus crash on icy Interior highway on Christmas Eve
First responders and passengers look over the scene of a deadly bus crash on Highway 97C, the Okanagan Connector between Merritt and Kelowna, on Saturday. BILL GERBER VIA THE CANADIAN PRESS

There needs to be a way to instill in people the life-saving benefits of wearing seatbelts — beyond it being the law, says Kelowna RCMP spokesman Const. James Ward, who interviewed survivors of the B.C. bus crash that killed four and injured dozens on Christmas Eve.

“And it’s not just death, or serious injury,” Ward said Wednesday. “I was just at the hospital, interviewing some people from this bus crash and, I mean, some of the injuries are horrific.”

Ward told media on Tuesday that although the Ebus motor-coach carrying 46 people, including the driver, was equipped with seatbelts, “it appears the majority of passengers were not wearing them.”

The westbound bus tipped onto its side about 6 p.m. Saturday on the icy highway and ended up in the eastbound lanes of Highway 97C, the Okanagan Connector. Survivors were transported to hospitals in Kelowna, Penticton and Merritt.

Ward said the crash is not an isolated event and as such it may require police, the coroner’s office, commercial vehicle safety enforcement inspectors, and bus operators to review enforcement of seatbelt use and how it is or isn’t working.

“This isn’t the only bus crash we’ve had lately, and it’s definitely not the only bus crash in the area for the past decade,” he said. “So maybe that’s something that we’ve got to start looking into and starting to enforce more.”

On April 6, 2018, 16 people were killed and 13 injured after a transport truck struck a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team in Saskatchewan. One of the recommendations from the coroner was mandatory seatbelts on highway buses.

“I know there was a lot of damage done to the bus, but still people were thrown about and thrown and ejected from the bus,” chief coroner Clive Weighill said when the report was released in 2019. “We can’t say for sure if that would have made a big substantial difference to the injuries, but we feel it would lead to a safer environment.”

On Sept. 13, 2019, Emma Machado, 18, of Winnipeg, and John Geerdes, 18, from Iowa City, Iowa, were killed when the bus they were on went off the road, fell onto its side, and slid down an embankment. The two were part of a group of University of Victoria biology students going to Bamfield’s Marine Sciences Centre.

Machado and Geerdes were ejected from the bus, and RCMP forensic collision reconstructionist Brian Nightingale and the B.C. Coroners Service determined that seatbelts not being worn contributed to deaths and injuries.

The coroner noted that neither the bus driver nor university staff enforced use of passenger seatbelts and recommended that ICBC review its public awareness strategy to promote use of seatbelts.

Machado’s mother, Ethel MacIntosh, said in an email Wednesday “we were and continue to be traumatized to hear those words ‘B.C. bus accident’ in any context.”

“A large fully loaded coach bus flipping on its side — the only thing missing was the slide down the ravine — fortunately for most of those passengers.”

MacIntosh, a surgeon, said her daughter was a cautious driver, always wore a seatbelt in any vehicle, and would have obeyed any instruction to wear one.

“Obviously, the culture of riding buses is different — and needs to change,” she said.

She said she imagines the fatalities and injuries in the Christmas Eve crash might have been mitigated if passengers had been wearing seatbelts.

“When I hear and read things about road conditions there that evening, I ask myself why more seatbelts weren’t used by the passengers. … I think it is in part ‘bus culture’ and a certain false sense of protection riding in a massive vehicle,” she said.

Ward agrees people feel a “false sense of security” on a coach bus — “it’s a big piece of steel.” But once top-heavy buses tip, he said, they can crumple, with passengers being tossed on top of one another or ejected and crushed.

If a bus is equipped with seatbelts, passengers must wear them.

Since 2020, all newly built highway buses have been required to have passenger seatbelts. Companies whose buses were built before 2020 are not required to add them. The requirements don’t apply to school buses, but operators can install them voluntarily and there are pilot projects testing their use.

Wearing seatbelts has been mandatory in B.C. since 1977. In 2019, exceptions for taxis and delivery drivers were removed, though exemptions for emergency service personnel remain. “Everybody else has to wear a seatbelt” under the Motor Vehicle Act, Ward said.

The driver of the vehicle is responsible for people under the age 16 wearing a seatbelt, while those 16 and older are responsible for their own seatbelt use.

Enforcement can be “convoluted” and time consuming, said Ward. A coach bus operator could check seatbelts prior to departure but would have a hard time monitoring use while driving, he said.

Police officers pulling over a commercial bus would need to be able to see passengers not wearing a seatbelt while the bus was in motion — something difficult to do given the height of the vehicles and their often-tinted windows, he said. Proving a passenger’s age would be another issue, he said.

At the same time, Ward said, airplanes don’t depart until flight attendants check that everyone has a seatbelt on. “So maybe buses [have] to start doing the same thing where it’s like ‘we’re not pulling out of the bus depot until everybody’s buckled in.’ ”

Police have not named the four people killed in Saturday’s crash, but a cousin of one passenger confirmed the death of Karanjot Singh Sodhi, 41. The father of two came to Canada from India in September on a temporary work permit, to work as a chef in Oliver.

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