BEIJING — China's safety regulator is demanding immediate action to improve safety aboard frequently overloaded and badly maintained school buses following a string of accidents that have killed at least 36 children and two adults.
The remarks Tuesday came hours after a school bus accident in eastern China killed 15 children, highlighting continuing safety problems in the country's school transport system. New reports have emerged that the bus was overloaded with passengers.
Managers need to identify and correct problems now instead of waiting for the passage of new regulations and safety standards, State Administration of Work Safety spokesman Huang Yi was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
School buses need to be sturdier and better maintained than ordinary buses, and those that fail the test must be barred from the roads, Huang said.
Education Minister Yuan Guiren, meanwhile, ordered reviews of school safety policies and immediate checks on all 285,000 school buses in the country, only 10 percent of which meet technical standards issued last year, the official China Daily newspaper reported.
On Monday evening, a school bus taking primary students home slipped off a country road into an irrigation ditch in the eastern province of Jiangsu, killing 15 children. The accident followed a similar tragedy last month.
In Monday's incident, workers at a nearby factory heard cries for help and rushed to the overturned bus, broke open the windows and began pulling children out.
Eight other children were injured in the accident, one of them seriously, said a spokesman for the Jiangsu provincial government, who like many Chinese officials refused to give his name. The bus was carrying 29 students and was designed for 52 people, so it was not overloaded, Xinhua said.
Other reports, however, cited rescuers and surviving students as saying the bus was severely overloaded.
The Beijing News tabloid quoted 12-year-old Li Kailong as saying there were about 70 people on board when it left the school, with only two getting off prior to the crash.
Villager Zhang Yunhe, who helped in the rescue, was also quoted as saying there were "definitely over 60 children in the bus."
The accident occurred as the bus was traveling along a rural highway outside the city of Xuzhou in the province's north. News reports said it careened off the road after swerving to avoid a pedicab. Xinhua said the driver had been detained for investigation.
"My husband ... used one hand to grab two or three (children) and the other to grab another two or three," said the wife of Tian Shengwei, who owns a nearby food processing factory.
"The water was not very deep, probably more than a meter (yard) or so, up to an adult's waist, but it was deep enough to drown some of the children," said Tian's wife, who would give only her surname, Zhang.
"We tried so hard and cracked open one of the windows and started to pull the kids out. It was freezing cold," she said by phone.
She said the children ranged in age from 6 to about 14.
The crash came amid an emotional national discussion over the poor condition of Chinese school buses and chronic underfunding of public schools, particularly in rural areas, which have lagged far behind cities over the past three decades of rapid economic development.
On Monday, a school bus was hit by a truck in southern Guangdong province, injuring 37 of the 59 students on board, Xinhua reported. Police detained the two drivers.
Two children were killed and several injured when the bus that was taking them on a field trip collided with a truck in the central province of Henan on Tuesday morning, according to the official China News Service.
Last month, 19 children and two adults were killed when a nine-seat private kindergarten van packed with 62 students crashed head-on with a truck in northwest Gansu province.
That was followed by a high-profile pledge from Premier Wen Jiabao that new rules to ensure school bus safety would be drafted within a month. Wen said central and local governments would bear the cost of bringing often-shoddy buses up to standard.
New regulations proposed Sunday by China's Cabinet provide guidelines such as capping speeds and prohibiting vehicles from passing buses when students are getting on or off, but do not address to what extent the government will fund school transport. A proposal for government school bus subsidies was rejected last year because of the cost – 450 billion yuan ($71 billion), or one-third of China's education budget.
Many school buses are operated by car rental companies and are even co-financed by parents.
Rural transport has become a growing issue because schoolchildren in those areas often must travel long distances to attend classes following the closure and consolidation of village schools. Numbers of school-age children in China have fallen because of strict family planning rules, while rural populations have thinned out as adults move to the cities for work, often leaving behind children to be looked after by their grandparents.
The "left-behind" phenomenon has been linked to child safety problems, since the grandparents are often too old or sickly to accompany their grandchildren to school and back and may be unmindful of the hazards aboard buses, as well as around the home.