Chris Selley: Believe it or not, it’s not always the government’s fault

CBC’s Fifth Estate crew has teased a couple of scoops out of Transport Canada lately, and the first probably deserved more attention than it got: For decades, a federal study has been the most widely cited authority on the convenient and business-friendly idea that seatbelts aren’t necessary to keep kids safe on school buses, thanks to the so-called “compartmentalization” effect of high-backed padded bench seats. The study even suggested seatbelts might cause whiplash injuries that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

It’s bunkum, basically. The study didn’t even test the effects of side impacts and rollovers. People within the ministry, including one who spoke to CBC on the record, have apparently known for ages it’s garbage. Other jurisdictions long ago moved to recommend or insist upon seatbelts. But you’ll still find “compartmentalization” explained on Canadian school board websites. It is reasonable to think some of the 23 school bus fatalities and scores of injuries over the past 30 years might have been prevented had the government not been deliberately spreading misinformation. Pretty damning stuff.

The second CBC story tries to expand this theme into the world of better-than-cheesewagon bus travel. “An internal Transport Canada investigation into a fatal crash in 2001 concluded that coach buses without seatbelts may put passengers at ‘unnecessary risk’ of injuries,” we learn — hardly a shocking finding — and yet the government failed to make seat belts mandatory until recently: As of 2020, all new highway buses will have to have them.

The wreckage of a fatal crash outside of Tisdale, Sask., is seen Saturday, April, 7, 2018.

CBC links this to the Humboldt Broncos tragedy, which killed 16 passengers. “My heart breaks for the families in Humboldt because if (the feds had acted), there would not have been 16 fatalities,” the mother of one of the four 2001 victims — Massachusetts schoolchildren on a trip to Halifax — told CBC.

This is much less compelling. Even without seatbelts, coach buses are a very safe mode of travel. As long as the government isn’t actively running interference for people who would rather not take precautions, as they seem to have been for the school bus industry, it’s hardly fair to imply they have blood on their hands.

The aftermath of the 2001 crash, in Sussex, N.B, saw calls for motor coaches to be fitted with seatbelts at a time when “compartmentalization” was still very much in vogue for school buses. And indeed, many coach operators have since installed them on some or all of their vehicles. One of them, it turns out, is Charlie’s Charters out of Tisdale, Sask., owner of the Broncos’ ill-fated bus.

The Broncos’ bus had seatbelts. The passengers weren’t wearing them, it seems. We learn this, no word of a lie, in the 38th paragraph of the CBC story.

We have to click on another CBC story to find some other highly pertinent information: “In Saskatchewan, anyone in a vehicle equipped with seatbelts is required by law to use them.” (This is true in some other provinces as well.) We learn of various efforts to get junior hockey players in Saskatchewan to use the seatbelts provided, and that these seem to have been met with a gigantic shrug.

Seat belts are uncomfortable, Jaxon White of the Flin Flon Bombers told CBC. “I don’t think anyone really thinks about putting a seatbelt on in a bus.”

“The Weyburn Red Wings’ team bus has lap and shoulder belts on every seat,” CBC reported. “It’s not clear whether anyone uses them. … Weyburn’s coaches refused to talk to CBC about it.”

The Broncos, at least, have been firmly instructed to buckle up. But not all the buses they use actually have seatbelts.

And we’re blaming the feds for this situation? Really? Concerned people likely needn’t ride on intercity buses that don’t have seat belts. They can insist their children’s teams and schools only use buses with seat belts, and that the adults responsible insist they’re used. They can demand their province enforce any existing regulations on seat belt use — which they’re going to have to do anyway, since there’s no reason to believe enforcement will ramp up when the new regulations kick in in 2020.

This is the way many Canadian media outlets, CBC especially, cover the news: When something bad happens, the number-one question is why the government didn’t prevent it, and thereafter why the government isn’t forcing people to learn obvious lessons. That doesn’t mean people should run their lives that way.

Nor is it to say anyone should be freaked out about riding on a bus without seatbelts. Ian Savage, a transportation economist at Northwestern University, compared the per-mile rate of fatalities among modes of transportation in the United States between 2000 and 2009. He found people in cars died at a rate of 7.28 per billion passenger miles. The rate for bus passengers, including school buses, was 0.11. Only commercial aviation (0.07) was safer.

Buckle up if you can and you want to, by all means. But there’s no need to do it in fear.

• Email: cselley@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

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