Elaine Alpert is a Vancouver-based physician educator specializing in public health and prevention.
I spent a career as an academic physician and Fulbright scholar in the field of violence prevention, but my most important job had the title of “Mom.” Chris Joseph was a pro hockey player with several years in the NHL, but his most important job was “Dad.” Both of our kids died in tragic bus crashes, 17 years apart, several provinces apart. My son Steve might have survived if the coach bus on which he was travelling had been equipped with seat belts. Chris’s son Jaxon and many of the 15 others who perished in the Humboldt Broncos tragedy might be alive today if the seat belts on their bus had been used. If tragedy can strike our kids, it can happen to anyone’s. That is why equipping every coach and school bus with seat belts – and requiring their use – must become a nationwide priority.
Surviving families in Humboldt are still wondering how they can manage to get through each minute, each hour, each day as new members of a club of the grieving and brokenhearted – a club no one wants to belong to, in which all members have an irrevocable lifetime membership. It is still new for everyone in Humboldt, Sask. – and still so raw. I remember those first few years after “our” 2001 bus tragedy in Sussex, N.B., as a sharp, cold ache that would never leave my heart. I remember grief tsunamis that would crash over me and knock me down without warning. It took two years for the tsunamis to subside, and nearly five years before I could go a full day without crying.
If only seat belts were installed – and used – on coach buses, some who perished in Humboldt, in Sussex, and elsewhere, perhaps even my Steve and Chris’s son Jaxon, might have survived. If only drivers always took care and attention while driving to assure everyone’s safety. If only Transport Canada had acted on the findings of its own 2002 report following the Sussex tragedy. If only, if only, if only…
Time’s up for any more “if only’s.” Politicians and industry must take immediate and decisive action, for prevention’s sake. We need to have seat belts installed on all buses, we need their use enforced and we must not wait any longer. I’ve heard the arguments – bus travel is generally safe; buses are designed to keep kids contained during a rollover or other crash; it would cost too much; people aren’t interested in wearing seat belts. I ask each and every industry lobbyist, politician or other naysayer to answer these two questions: Would you like to trade places with me? What is your child’s life worth?
In addition to seat belts, we also need to take a close look at our road infrastructure. Is every highway ramp or interchange as safe as it could be? If not, why not? Are rural road intersections as well-protected with signs, rumble strips, and smart engineering as they can be? If not, why not? Are vehicles equipped with devices that slow drivers down when they are going too fast or approaching an intersection? If we can build skyscrapers and travel through space, why can’t we develop ways to make our roads, vehicles, and drivers safer?
It is not because of a lack of technical ability. Even I, a non-engineer, can come up with practical ideas. Our problem boils down to a lack of guts and determination, because our priorities have succumbed to the almighty dollar and the false hope that another tragedy won’t happen. It will happen again, and our kids, families and communities are waiting and hoping for society and our elected leaders to finally get their priorities straightened out and for Canada to catch up to promising efforts under way in many other countries.
It is cold comfort to know that beginning in late 2020, Transport Canada will finally require all newly built highway buses to be equipped with seat belts. Despite clear evidence of the effectiveness of seat belts, shockingly, school buses and existing coach buses will be exempt. Waiting until 2020 for new buses, and hoping that for another couple of decades another fatal crash does not occur involving an older bus or school bus is simply unacceptable. All buses need to be equipped, and this needs to be done right away.
Politicians, look me in the eye and tell me that this is not politically feasible. It is, and if you need to be voted out for lack of political will, the voters will gladly oblige. Industry lobbyists, look me in the eye and tell me it’s too costly. And if you dare make that assertion, tuck your kids into bed tonight and then try looking me in the eye tomorrow. You won’t be able to. Engineers, look me in the eye and tell me it’s too difficult. You won’t, because you know it’s not.
Celebrated public-health scholar Geoffrey Vickers declared that an issue becomes a public-health problem when it transforms from the realm of the “given” to the realm of the “unacceptable.” My old chief of medicine, Norm Levinsky, always maintained that when an issue becomes recognized as a priority, time and resources get devoted to it.
So in memory of the four children – including my son – who perished in Sussex, the 16 souls lost in Humboldt, victims and grieving families of others who perished both within and outside of Canada, and in fond memory of both Sir Geoffrey and Dr. Levinsky, let’s get to work addressing this urgent public-health priority. In addition to seat belts, let’s devote energy – and action – toward bus maintenance, road engineering and driver training and supervision. Just ask any grieving parent, other family member or community member how important this is for all of society. Bus safety needs to be addressed urgently, before we lose more precious loved ones.