IS SCHOOL TRANSPORT KILLING OUR CHILDREN?

Youth Month is an appropriate time to reflect on the way South Africa works to keep its children safe. History should always teach us to do better, especially regarding our children. When it comes to education, many barriers exist for many children in South Africa. Unfortunately, safety and school transport are among them.

 

To ensure the safety of child passengers, Wheel Well is focused on road safety for children. But, the regulations surrounding school transport in South Africa are unclear. This makes it challenging to guarantee the safety of school children. We need to discuss these regulations and address the existing gaps.

CHILD SAFETY ON SOUTH AFRICAN ROADS

 

According to Child Gauge 2019, a publication released by the University of Cape Town, South Africa has a high rate of child injury deaths. In high-income countries, the global annual child-injury mortality rate is 8.6 per 100,00. By comparison, in South Africa, the rate is 38.9 per 100,000 for children 19 years and younger. Of these, 36% are the result of road traffic injuries. That means that it is the leading cause of child mortality in South Africa. Children aged 6-12 years are particularly vulnerable on our roads, as passengers and pedestrians.

 

The publication found that 68% of South African learners walk to school and that one in five pedestrian deaths are children under the age of 15 years.

 

THE BLACKHEATH TRAIN CRASH

 

An historical tragedy that should be a call for change, occurred in 2010 when the Blackheath train incident shook the nation. A minibus carrying school children cut in front of other vehicles and drove in front of a train. Ten children were killed in this horrific crash which scarred the community. The driver was found guilty of 10 counts of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, his sentence was reduced to 8 years. While the driver may have been held accountable to some extent, this was a preventable tragedy. The lives of ten families and their communities remain irreparably changed.

 

A proposed bridge was planned to improve the safety of this crossing following the deaths of these children. Unfortunately, the bridge failed to materialise. In 2018, another crash involving a bakkie driving in front of a train killed 5 people. Two crashes at the same crossing show an attitude of apathy when it comes to changes for road safety.

 

In tragedies like these, the reason of “human error” falls flat, however, if we view the circumstances that allow for this excuse to surface, the question arises “How do we prevent this?”.

 

REGULATION 231

 

Before we look at the factors that would improve the safety of school children on our roads, we need to talk about Regulation 231 of the National Traffic Act, 1996. It states:

 

  1. Manner in which children to be counted for purposes of regulations

1) For the purposes of establishing the number of persons that may in terms of these regulations,

other than regulation 263, be carried on any vehicle, other than a motorcycle, motor tricycle,

motor quadricycle or pedal cycle –

  1. a) any child under the age of three years shall not be counted;
  2. b) two children of three years or over but under the age of six years shall be counted as one

person; and

  1. c) three children of six years or over but under the age of 13 years shall be counted as two persons:

Provided that in applying the provisions of this regulation, fractions shall be disregarded.

 

When loading a vehicle, the total mass of passengers is considered. This logic determines that because children are smaller than adults, 2-3 children (depending on age group) makeup one adult when counting the allowed number of passengers for that vehicle.

 

Child safety becomes a concern when following this logic. Counting many children as single people ignores the fact that most vehicles do not safely cater for this. For example, this means that there are not enough restraints in a vehicle to cater to every child.

 

Overloaded vehicles already pose a huge safety risk for all its occupants. This issue is compounded when children are not counted as a single person but rather several. Cape Talk spoke to the father of a 7-year-old boy, Liyabonga Mbaba, who had died by decapitation in a crash involving an overloaded taxi. The harrowing interview can be heard here, although we would like to add a trigger warning for the graphic description of the crash.

 

THE NEED FOR SAFE SCHOOL TRANSPORT

 

There is a great need for safe and reliable school transport for children in South Africa. With the majority of children having to walk to school, they are already vulnerable to many risks. A great number also rely on public transport to receive their education. Without standardised and enforced school transport regulations, children who rely on these services are at the highest risk of injury and death.

 

The Department of Transportation has attempted to address this problem in their National Learner Transport 2015, which was revised in March 2023. Yet, while this policy addresses some of the challenges of school transport, there is not enough being done. Underfunding is one of their stated reasons for this.

 

As a nation, this should be a priority for ourselves as taxpayers. We are stakeholders in the future of our children, especially regarding their education and safety. Children should not have to risk dying to receive their education.

 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE CHANGED

 

Several factors need to be improved. Firstly, Regulation 231 needs to be updated to count every child in a vehicle, regardless of age, as one person. This would aid in catering to the safety requirements of every person in a vehicle.

 

Every school district should have a subsidised school transport program that caters to the safety of children. This is especially necessary for schools that have a high number of children who walk to school.

Vehicles utilised should have child safety in mind. In the United States of America, the yellow school bus is a widely recognised vehicle, even throughout the rest of the world. Transporting 26 million children each year, school buses are the largest mode of public transport in the US. With their high visibility, large size, lower centre of gravity and strong rules for navigating the roads around them, fatal crashes involving school buses are incredibly rare. We know it may be unrealistic to compare the experiences of high- and low-income countries. However, this shows that the use of vehicles designed to carry children can reduce the risk of child fatalities. We also need clearer regulations on what determines a vehicle fit for carrying school children.

 

When we send our children to school, we entrust their safety to other adults. Any person tasked with transporting children must have specific permits and training to do so. Training should centre around the care of children. First-aid certification should also be mandatory. Drivers should also be vetted to ensure that they have no prior record of harm against children.

 

Safe school transport can play a huge role in ensuring that fewer children die from preventable road fatalities. However, those with the power to enact changes that would save children from the largest cause of death in our country, do not seem rushed to do so. Especially considering the severity of this problem. Having a standardised and enforced national school transport policy will help in the assignment of roles and accountability for school transport. It will also set safety standards to which all parties must comply with.

 

Parents can also appeal to their school governing board, headmaster and local metro police. These different entities must work together to ensure learners’ safety to and from school.

For child pedestrians, schools can organise a Walking Bus program. This involves community volunteers walking children in a group to and from school. This helps to ensure they are safe and more visible to road users.

 

Let’s put the pressure on the Departments of Education and Transport, as well as our schools so that history does not keep repeating itself with more preventable deaths of our kids.

Youth Month is an appropriate time to reflect on the way South Africa works to keep its children safe. History should always teach us to do better, especially regarding our children. When it comes to education, many barriers exist for many children in South Africa. Unfortunately, safety and school transport are among them.

To ensure the safety of child passengers, Wheel Well is focused on road safety for children. But, the regulations surrounding school transport in South Africa are unclear. This makes it challenging to guarantee the safety of school children. We need to discuss these regulations and address the existing gaps.

CHILD SAFETY ON SOUTH AFRICAN ROADS

According to Child Gauge 2019, a publication released by the University of Cape Town, South Africa has a high rate of child injury deaths. In high-income countries, the global annual child-injury mortality rate is 8.6 per 100,00. By comparison, in South Africa, the rate is 38.9 per 100,000 for children 19 years and younger. Of these, 36% are the result of road traffic injuries. That means that it is the leading cause of child mortality in South Africa. Children aged 6-12 years are particularly vulnerable on our roads, as passengers and pedestrians.

The publication found that 68% of South African learners walk to school and that one in five pedestrian deaths are children under the age of 15 years.

THE BLACKHEATH TRAIN CRASH

 

An historical tragedy that should be a call for change, occurred in 2010 when the Blackheath train incident shook the nation. A minibus carrying school children cut in front of other vehicles and drove in front of a train. Ten children were killed in this horrific crash which scarred the community. The driver was found guilty of 10 counts of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, his sentence was reduced to 8 years. While the driver may have been held accountable to some extent, this was a preventable tragedy. The lives of ten families and their communities remain irreparably changed.

A proposed bridge was planned to improve the safety of this crossing following the deaths of these children. Unfortunately, the bridge failed to materialise. In 2018, another crash involving a bakkie driving in front of a train killed 5 people. Two crashes at the same crossing show an attitude of apathy when it comes to changes for road safety.

In tragedies like these, the reason of “human error” falls flat, however, if we view the circumstances that allow for this excuse to surface, the question arises “How do we prevent this?”.

REGULATION 231

 

Before we look at the factors that would improve the safety of school children on our roads, we need to talk about Regulation 231 of the National Traffic Act, 1996. It states:

  1. Manner in which children to be counted for purposes of regulations

1) For the purposes of establishing the number of persons that may in terms of these regulations,

other than regulation 263, be carried on any vehicle, other than a motorcycle, motor tricycle,

motor quadricycle or pedal cycle –

  1. a) any child under the age of three years shall not be counted;
  2. b) two children of three years or over but under the age of six years shall be counted as one

person; and

  1. c) three children of six years or over but under the age of 13 years shall be counted as two persons:

Provided that in applying the provisions of this regulation, fractions shall be disregarded.

 

When loading a vehicle, the total mass of passengers is considered. This logic determines that because children are smaller than adults, 2-3 children (depending on age group) makeup one adult when counting the allowed number of passengers for that vehicle.

Child safety becomes a concern when following this logic. Counting many children as single people ignores the fact that most vehicles do not safely cater for this. For example, this means that there are not enough restraints in a vehicle to cater to every child.

Overloaded vehicles already pose a huge safety risk for all its occupants. This issue is compounded when children are not counted as a single person but rather several. Cape Talk spoke to the father of a 7-year-old boy, Liyabonga Mbaba, who had died by decapitation in a crash involving an overloaded taxi. The harrowing interview can be heard here, although we would like to add a trigger warning for the graphic description of the crash.

THE NEED FOR SAFE SCHOOL TRANSPORT

 

There is a great need for safe and reliable school transport for children in South Africa. With the majority of children having to walk to school, they are already vulnerable to many risks. A great number also rely on public transport to receive their education. Without standardised and enforced school transport regulations, children who rely on these services are at the highest risk of injury and death.

The Department of Transportation has attempted to address this problem in their National Learner Transport 2015, which was revised in March 2023. Yet, while this policy addresses some of the challenges of school transport, there is not enough being done. Underfunding is one of their stated reasons for this.

As a nation, this should be a priority for ourselves as taxpayers. We are stakeholders in the future of our children, especially regarding their education and safety. Children should not have to risk dying to receive their education.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE CHANGED

 

Several factors need to be improved. Firstly, Regulation 231 needs to be updated to count every child in a vehicle, regardless of age, as one person. This would aid in catering to the safety requirements of every person in a vehicle.

Every school district should have a subsidised school transport program that caters to the safety of children. This is especially necessary for schools that have a high number of children who walk to school.

Vehicles utilised should have child safety in mind. In the United States of America, the yellow school bus is a widely recognised vehicle, even throughout the rest of the world. Transporting 26 million children each year, school buses are the largest mode of public transport in the US. With their high visibility, large size, lower centre of gravity and strong rules for navigating the roads around them, fatal crashes involving school buses are incredibly rare. We know it may be unrealistic to compare the experiences of high- and low-income countries. However, this shows that the use of vehicles designed to carry children can reduce the risk of child fatalities. We also need clearer regulations on what determines a vehicle fit for carrying school children.

When we send our children to school, we entrust their safety to other adults. Any person tasked with transporting children must have specific permits and training to do so. Training should centre around the care of children. First-aid certification should also be mandatory. Drivers should also be vetted to ensure that they have no prior record of harm against children.

Safe school transport can play a huge role in ensuring that fewer children die from preventable road fatalities. However, those with the power to enact changes that would save children from the largest cause of death in our country, do not seem rushed to do so. Especially considering the severity of this problem. Having a standardised and enforced national school transport policy will help in the assignment of roles and accountability for school transport. It will also set safety standards to which all parties must comply with.

Parents can also appeal to their school governing board, headmaster and local metro police. These different entities must work together to ensure learners’ safety to and from school.

For child pedestrians, schools can organise a Walking Bus program. This involves community volunteers walking children in a group to and from school. This helps to ensure they are safe and more visible to road users.

Let’s put the pressure on the Departments of Education and Transport, as well as our schools so that history does not keep repeating itself with more preventable deaths of our kids.