I have been asked by readers to elaborate on my recent blog post that focused on the tragic school bus accident in January, which cost three children their lives in Oman's Al Qurum district. Interestingly, I have received mails from school teachers asking what they can do to help.
It might be a good starting point to look at some of the international best-practices in school buses safety. In the United States, for instance, school bus seat belts are mandatory. In Australia, a school bus safety action plan has been implemented to complement the National Road Safety Strategy 2001-2010 that focuses on raising awareness among children, parents, teachers, care-givers, bus drivers and operators. In Japan, school buses are equipped with radios for the bus drivers to contact either the central office or other bus drivers on their routes for assistance.
Learning from such global initiatives, we could perhaps adopt a two-pronged approach to bus safety in Oman — on the governmental level and the individual level.
An action plan has already been set in place by the government. Oman's Ministry of Education is stepping up bus safety standards with new guidelines that are in the final stages of approval. Among the proposals likely to be implemented include fitting-out school buses with GPRS devices. Appointing drivers above 25 years of age, preferably married and fathers of children themselves, are being considered to enhance their empathy with the young passengers. Providing every bus with an assistant/conductor to help transfer children from the bus stop to the closest 'safe' pick-up point is also being looked into.
On its part, the Ministry of Social Development has set up a non-profit organization such as the Oman Road Safety Association. In conjunction with independent entities such as Safety First Oman, a mission to reduce the number of road traffic accidents and fatalities in the country by up to 50 per cent by 2020 has already been earmarked.
Perhaps a nation-wide campaign that allows the government to communicate its safety mandate on school transportation and step-up dialogue with key target audiences would help urge the implementation of best practices on an everyday basis.
Other solutions might include applying more stringent procedures for acquiring heavy vehicle (such as buses) licenses and conducting on going checks to monitor the mandatory use of seatbelts among children.
The strategy should include periodic training for school bus drivers to reiterate the importance of remaining exceptionally vigilant while driving. Careful attention must be paid to ensure that no bus is ever occupied over capacity.
At an individual level, stakeholders including teachers, parents and drivers could initiate local efforts at their workplace and organise workshops in collaboration with relevant ministries or authorities to prioritize school bus safety and provide creative solutions to ensure students have a safe passage to and from schools.
Recognising parents as the primary teacher in their child's life and providing appropriate parent education is essential in lowering motor vehicle child casualties. Parents need to be involved as full partners in prevention and early intervention.
Classroom staff and transportation staff need to work in collaboration to exchange resources, ideas, and materials on school safety. Bus monitors could be appointed among school children. Teachers can guide bus monitors to ensure appropriate practices are followed when guiding young children to observe safety lessons.
Bus drivers are also recommended to visit classrooms to talk to children about safety and help reinforce key safety concepts. School bus drivers must also carry out daily checks of lights, tyres, seats and the structure of the bus, and faults should be reported.
The key lies in enforcement if we are to significantly reduce the number of deaths and injuries as a result of road accidents. It is only collective planning and the implementation of results-oriented initiatives that will help shape a more child-friendly landscape in the country at large.
The author is the Vice Chairman of National Bank of Oman, former Chief of the Omani Air Force and an International Advisor to the Brookings Institution.
All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.