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The shocking incident of V.J. Theeksheth, the 7-year-old who died after being run over by a school bus at Sri Venkateshwara Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Chennai’s Alwarthirunagar on March 28, raises the question, once again, whether enough is being done to make the daily commute safe. Could the driver have been more vigilant and should not the school have monitored the safe movement of children?

Tragic deaths of children involving school buses is a topic that continues to engage transport safety experts worldwide, because even a single life lost is one too many. There is no acceptable rate of dead children.

The many deaths in school bus incidents show that India is not using the available technology to stop the carnage. Invariably, the response of State governments is to quell immediate public anger through arrests and statements of strong intent, as in the Alwarthirunagar case, while ignoring the more difficult question of adopting technologies and best practices to make school trips safe, backed by zero tolerance enforcement.

If governments show the political will, this situation can change through a redefinition of safety standards for buses in general and school buses in particular. This can be matched with strict enforcement, parental concern and community vigilance.

Blind spots, dead zones
School buses, like other large and heavy grade vehicles, have blind spots and dead zones around them that treacherously prevent drivers from seeing small children right in front. This is not a peculiarly Indian phenomenon.

The lowest hanging fruit in detecting these “dead zones” in front of the bus are cross view mirrors. While Indian technical standards issued by standards body ARAI prescribe two specified mirrors to be placed in the front, there is nothing particular on school buses. On the other hand, cross view mirrors have been used in many countries, since they technically allow the driver to see what is in front of the bus. In Sri Lanka, even small passenger vans were using it in the 1980s.

Technology has moved ahead, however, and the United Nations has recognised the need for modern devices such as cameras and proximity sensors to be made part of vehicle standards. It has issued, through the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Regulation 46 which exhaustively documents these technical standards on “indirect vision” aids for drivers. India’s own ARAI standards on mirrors to be fixed on vehicles are aligned with the earliest UNECE mandates.

One of the simplest, low cost interventions that governments can order is the installation of cross view mirrors in every bus.

Need for an upgrade
Surprising as it may seem, even cross view mirrors do not always work. In one experiment in New York conducted by the Lake Shore school district, school bus drivers were shocked to discover that they could not spot in the mirrors, mannequin children placed in the blind spots of the bus – the front part below the bumper and close to the tyres in trucks with the cabin behind the engine. Note that this was in buses that met US federal standards on motor vehicle safety.

Writing on LinkedIn on the Lake Shore experience – drivers receive mirror training here – Victoria DeCarlo, a safety specialist in New York State, says, “In all reality, it doesn’t matter what title you hold, how many years of experience you have behind the wheel of a school bus, there are blind spots that may go unnoticed. There’s no doubt our school buses desperately need better equipment.”

Cameras, sensors
Companies working on bus safety are therefore moving towards 360-degree cameras that capture the view around a bus, in the driver’s cabin. In addition, proximity sensors can potentially warn drivers of children and objects around. One example of a commercial product is that of four cameras installed on the front, back and sides that provide a composite view to the driver of the entire area surrounding the bus. This is as important as raising security for children inside the bus through surveillance systems.

Under India’s Automotive Industry Standards (AIS), a school bus is defined as one that has a seating capacity of 13 and above besides the driver and is built for the purpose. One of the simplest, low cost interventions that governments can order is the installation of cross view mirrors in every bus. This will, of course, be complemented by the presence of an attendant who will help the children cross over safely.

What such an arrangement will not cover is the use of motley vehicle types for school transport, a common practice all over the country, and something over which parents have no control in the absence of regulation and enforcement. It should be pointed out that many children have been run over by small school vans in Tamil Nadu, and many have suffered in packed autorickshaws involved in an accident, and not just large buses. Yet, these vehicles continue to operate, mostly unregulated.

Companies working on bus safety are therefore moving towards 360-degree cameras that capture the view around a bus, in the driver’s cabin

The question that begs an answer is, how committed are State governments to safe school transport? Have they tried to persuade the Centre and the ARAI to revisit the specifications for school buses and reissue them after upgrading?

This may appear to be a stretch, given the overall indifference of governments to road safety in India, which has arguably the largest number of road crash deaths each year at about 1.5 lakh lives lost, and several times more people maimed for life. Even the particularly ghastly incidents on the trip to school have failed to move them.


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