Investigation into B.C. school bus crash could take months: RCMP

Sarah Duff's daughter is one of dozens of children recovering after a school bus crash north of Lac La Hache last week that resulted in injuries to an estimated 36 people.

A subsequent accident at the same location left one person, a 67-year-old man from the Cariboo, dead. Police say he was a pedestrian and was killed by an oncoming vehicle.

The investigation into the cause of the crash could take months, RCMP say.

Police say they were called to a bus crash on Highway 97 at Butler Road at about 1 p.m. PT on June 21. The B.C. Highway Patrol said the bus, carrying students in grades 6 and 7 on the way home from a field trip, was travelling on Highway 97 when it went off the road and down a 15-metre embankment.

Duff said her daughter, a Grade 7 student at Horse Lake Elementary, was sitting at the back of the bus when the accident happened.

"All of a sudden, she woke up and was near the front of the bus, and everybody was crying, and it was chaos," she told CBC's Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce.

She said her daughter was one of the many students who climbed out the window of the bus, and she found someone with a phone so she could call her mom.

"Worst phone call a parent could ever get."

Duff jumped in her vehicle and drove to the accident site. Cars were at a standstill on the highway, so she got out of her car and ran to her daughter.

She was already at the scene when she got word from the school district that parents were to meet their kids at the local rec centre in 100 Mile House.

"There were numerous parents already there," Duff recalled.

"It's a small community, so we kind of all just phoned everybody we knew."

Duff worries that her daughter will have lasting psychological impacts from the crash and plans to enrol her in counselling as they head into summer.

"A field trip is supposed to be a happy thing, a good end to the school year. They've had a rough year. Not really the best way to end Grade 7."

Police are looking for dashcam footage from people who live on or were travelling along Highway 97 between 150 Mile House and Butler Road between 12:00 pm. PT and 1:00 p.m. PT on June 21.

Highway patrol says arrangements are being made to return personal items from the bus to their owners in the coming weeks.

Seat belts on buses

Premier David Eby said it's "strange" that seatbelts are not required on school buses.

He said the province will work with Transport Canada to identify whether seatbelts would have been beneficial in this incident and if they should be considered in the future.

A 2018 investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate found that seatbelts could have prevented thousands of injuries and numerous child deaths across North America in the previous 30-year period.

According to Transport Canada, there was only one school bus passenger death between 2009 and 2018.

Transport Canada's website says that while seat belts offer an added layer of safety, the design of school buses, particularly the seats, is considered good protection for children.

If seat belts aren't installed properly, Transport Canada says they could do more harm than good.

Lewis Smith, manager of national projects for the Canada Safety Council in Ottawa, said the question isn't whether to make school buses safe. It's if we need to make them safer.

The fact that people were injured and not killed after this particular bus fell such a significant distance shows that school buses are safe, Lewis said.

There are pilot programs happening across the country right now figuring out how seatbelts could impact buses, he said.

"There are some questions that still remain to be answered: How do we adjust the seat belts to make sure that they're properly fitted for every child in case of an emergency situation? Can a child unfasten and get out of the school bus in time?"

Additionally, he said they need to consider the financial cost of retrofitting thousands of buses with seat belts.

"The research is being done. We're making sure that any additions that are made are made for the right purposes and not in haste after an incident such as this."