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Four Massachusetts schoolchildren killed in a bus crash last year may have survived if they had been wearing seat belts, a Fredericton-based engineer and accident reconstruction expert has told a coroner's inquest.

Frank Wilson said yesterday that it is time to consider mandatory seat belts on motor coaches.

"It would likely be advisable for these coaches to move to seat belt installation," he said.

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One child was sitting on the floor at the time of the accident. Another had her back to a window with her legs draped across the laps of several friends, while another boy was kneeling on a seat, leaning over the back of the seat and talking to his friends.

Two children in the back of the bus were together in one seat.

Emile Therien, president of the Ottawa-based Canada Safety Council, endorsed the call for seat belts in tour buses, but also said seat belts should not be installed in school buses.

Most school buses have safety design features that are not part of tour buses, Mr. Therien said in an interview last night. Among these safety design features are closely-spaced seats with high, padded backs, which are intended to "compartmentalize" the riders.

But Dr. Phyllis Agran, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Injury Violence, which supports installing seat belts on school buses, said the lap/shoulder system provides optimal protection and is superior to either special seats that restrict the child or simple lap belts.

She called the large school bus "a dinosaur" in terms of occupant-protection strategies. "It hasn't changed in 25 years," she said.

"School buses are a safe mode of transportation, but if we have the technology we might as well make them even safer for our children."

The transportation industry, however, sees several obstacles to putting seat belts on motor coaches.

A British Columbia operator said he sees no need for changes, at least not on his buses. Martin Yeh, vice-president of Pacific Coach Lines, said yesterday in an interview that his buses are safe, he doesn't think riders would like seat belts and "we never hear any complaints from our customers."

The Canadian Bus Association, in a position paper on its Web site, states that association members believe the industry can improve safety. But it raises several problems with mandatory seat belts, including consultation, the technical and safety grounds to justify seat belts and the logistics of enforcing mandatory use.

There is a warrant out for the arrest of the driver of the tour bus that crashed near Sussex, N.B., killing Gregory Chan, Steven Glidden, Melissa Leung and Kayla Rosenberg, aged 12 and 13.

He's charged with careless driving.

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