Tragedy prompts bus fleet changes

CHILD MOURNED: Flowers near the site where 5-year-old Mahuri Bettjeman-Manawatu was killed.
CHILD MOURNED: Flowers near the site where 5-year-old Mahuri Bettjeman-Manawatu was killed.

A West Coast boy's death has prompted changes to New Zealand's largest school-bus fleet to reduce a blind spot for drivers.

Mahuri Hemi Bettjeman-Manawatu, 5, was run over by a school bus on August 21, 2012, soon after he was dropped off at a bus stop in Hector, north of Westport, with his two brothers, aged 7 and 9, and other children.

A coroner's inquest, in Greymouth, was told yesterday that Ritchies Transport Ltd had made changes to 85 of its buses as a result of Mahuri's death.

Senior Constable Greg Taylor, of the Tasman police district crash unit, told the inquest that huge blind spots down the left-hand side of the bus would have prevented the driver seeing Mahuri as he ran beside it after it pulled out and drove along Curtis St.

Mahuri probably tripped and was run over as the bus turned left into Greenfield St, about 10 metres to 12m from the bus stop, he said.

Investigations showed a driver was unable to see about 45 to 55 per cent down the bus's left-hand side and a further 14 to 27 per cent required more than a quick glance in the mirror "making this area a hard-to-see area for the driver".

Ritchies Transport Holdings human resources and training manager John Harvey told the inquest that extra mirrors were retrofitted to the left side of all its 85 Volkswagen school buses nationwide after Mahuri's death, as recommended by police.

"It is accepted there is a driver blind spot on vehicles of this sort. However, such blind spots exist with virtually every large vehicle, whether they be passenger service vehicles or otherwise."

The company sent a memo to all drivers warning them to watch out for children running beside buses, he said. A similar memo was sent to Bus and Coach Association members.

Harvey said he had 30 years' experience as a bus driver "and I've probably watched hundreds of kids as I left the bus stop running along the footpath to attempt to beat me and my bus".

"It never occurred to me that it was something that could turn into or that could have such tragic consequences. It scares me that I allowed it to happen so many times and in conversation with drivers throughout the country, it scares them a little as well."

The bus stop was also moved further away from the intersection after Mahuri's death.

Detective Sergeant Gavin Nichols, of Greymouth police, said Mahuri and his two older brothers regularly caught the bus to Granity Primary School.

They had to walk about 500m north along Curtis St to get home after their drop-off, meaning they had to cross Greenfield St.

Mahuri's brothers, who saw the bus hit their younger brother, gave statements to a specialist child interviewer about what happened.

Fellow pupils also described Mahuri running along the road before the bus hit him.

A 7-year-old girl said "he always runs, chases the bus".

The bus driver said in his statement he noticed a bump "like he had driven over a brick or something" as he turned the corner so stopped to check what had happened and discovered he had run over Mahuri.

Christchurch coroner Richard McElrea withheld the bus driver's name. He adjourned the hearing and said he would release written findings at a later date, but noted key concerns raised by police had largely been addressed by the bus company.

Mahuri's parents, Terri-lee Bettjeman and Jamie Manawatu, attended the hearing.

Outside, Manawatu said they were trying to focus on the future and their three surviving children.

The Press