/ 4 February 2004

Bus safety rules ‘not specific enough’

New regulations to compel the replacement of non-functioning emergency exits on South African buses and taxis will still take an indeterminate time to come into effect, it emerged on Tuesday.

Transport Department spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said the new regulations — drawn up following last year’s Saulspoort bus disaster — will be published as soon as possible.

However, no date has been set yet because his department is still consulting about them, Mabaya said.

In the meantime millions of public transport passengers run the daily risk of meeting the same fate as the 51 Saulspoort victims, who drowned while trapped inside their sinking bus.

When the bus containing their bodies was eventually retrieved from the Saulspoort Dam outside Bethlehem in the Free State, the emergency exit window was still intact.

Shortly after the accident, survivors standing on the roof of the sunken bus heard banging from inside, followed by an eerie silence.

Mabaya denied on Tuesday that previous regulations concerning emergency exits are inadequate. They are just not specific enough, he said.

Earlier this week, safety expert Ivan le Roux testified during the inquest into the Saulspoort disaster that this lack of specifics amounted to loopholes abused by the bus industry.

Public coaches are turned into ”coffins on wheels”. Standard exit windows can simply not be kicked out in an emergency, Le Roux maintained.

They are nothing more than ordinary bus windows with a designating sticker attached, he said.

Le Roux blamed the government and the bus industry for perpetuating a serious danger they had been made aware of a long time ago.

A bus industry spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday that the Saulspoort disaster prompted the drawing up of the new regulations.

Eric Cornelius of the South African Bus Operators’ Association (Saboa) said the organisation’s technical committee immediately started investigating emergency exits after the Saulspoort tragedy. This led to rewriting of the regulations in conjunction with the South African Bureau for Standards.

Saboa also represents the majority of the country’s coach manufacturers.

Cornelius denied that the industry had been aware of shortcomings in the current regulations long before the Saulspoort disaster. He said they were ”not really anyone’s fault”.

The danger had not been recognised earlier because there were very few accidents in which emergency exits played a role, he maintained.

”Except for the Westdene bus disaster [during the Eighties], the emergency exit was in very few if any accidents a problem.”

This is contrary to Le Roux’s opinion. He maintained this week that more than 400 lives have been lost since the Westdene disaster directly due to non-functioning emergency exits.

Cornelius added on Tuesday that other safety considerations preclude manufacturers from fitting emergency exit windows loose enough to be easily kicked out.

This could for instance lead to passengers pushing out a back window by accident and falling out, Cornelius said.

The draft regulations will require all new vehicles to be fitted with compliant emergency exits from the date the regulations come into force. Fleet owners are to be granted a year from that date to convert existing vehicles.

According to Le Roux the necessary devices are readily available on the market to ensure functional emergency exits, even underwater. These include hammers to break windows, or powerful equipment ejecting the whole window with its fittings, activated by a lever.

Unfortunately their installation on South African fleets is long overdue, Le Roux said. — Sapa