The only way to improve safety for more than half a million schoolchildren travelling to and from school is (1) tackle the dangerous driving habits that are routinely observed on Oman’s roads and (2) reform the student transport system in the interests of safety.
Speeding, tailgating, reckless overtaking and distracted driving, especially texting or talking on mobile phones put our lives and the lives of children, our most vulnerable citizens, at risk every time we set foot outdoors. These common driving habits vastly increase the likelihood of a crash occurring. In a crash, anyone not wearing a seat belt is at risk of dying from brain or spinal trauma or ejection from the vehicle.
Action to improve road safety requires reform of the Traffic Law to tackle distracted (mobile phone) and impaired (drugs, alcohol) driving; to set lower speed limits on urban roads and to mandate the use of seat belts.
More stringent penalties, zero tolerance enforcement and high visibility policing are proven to be effective in changing driver behaviour in a short period of time.
Key to this process is the overhaul of the driver test and licensing system to increase the knowledge and skills set of new drivers taking to the roads in ever-increasing numbers.
A spate of deaths among students travelling on buses to schools and colleges in recent years, including this latest tragedy, highlights the special case of bus driver qualification, training and testing. There is a strong case to be made now for proper regulation of the student transport policy including the allocation of responsibilities and obligations between education and transport authorities, schools managements, operators, drivers, students and guardians.
Fundamental to a safe student transport policy are:
•Stringent driver training and testing, minimum number of years as driving experience, clean licence, satisfactory medical and drug-testing as well as background checks.
•Improved vehicle specifications such as minimum design specification for bus body strength, rollover and crash protection, speed limiters (80kmph), compulsory fitting and use of seat belts, side stop arms and additional warning lights.
•Training of vehicle operators in school transport management.
•Designation of safe routes to school and drop off and pick up zones,.
•Designation of school zones, traffic management and enforcement of 20kmph speed limits.
•Effective fines and penalties for violations.
A pilot project announced last year by the Ministry of Education for 200 new school buses provided by the Oman National Transport Company to be trialled in Muscat, Buraimi and Musandam with Omani drivers 25 years and above represents a step in the right direction.
Outside this pilot project, school bus transportation and drivers are not regulated by law in any significant way. Any Omani over the age of 18 years is eligible to drive a school bus or other utility vehicle (taxi etc) provided he possesses a ‘light’ driving licence. There are no specific requirements or training an applicant must satisfy in order to qualify as a bus driver.
In practice, most schools sub-contract pupil transport to private companies who are required by the Ministry of Manpower to employ young Omanis as drivers, by definition inexperienced and as young males, prone to risk-taking.
On the other hand, some bus drivers are in the older age bracket and may have health conditions or are on medication which impairs their vision or reaction to driving hazards.
To be effective, a safe student transport policy also requires a shift in mindset, prioritising road safety requirements over considerations of employment policy.