BATHURST, N.B. - Some parents whose sons were killed in a horrifying van crash in northern New Brunswick last year expressed their disappointment Tuesday at the provincial government's decision not to implement key recommendations of a coroner's inquest into the accident.
Dale Branch criticized the government's response to the accident that killed his son Codey and six other boys.
"It's all about money, the biggest thing is ... how do we cut costs and stuff like that," he said. "That shouldn't be."
Seven members of the Bathurst High School boys basketball team and the wife of their coach were killed when their school van collided with a transport truck during a snowstorm in January 2008.
Education Minister Roland Hache met with parents Tuesday to tell them that most of the recommendations have been accepted but the government can't follow two recommendations that would restrict travel to school buses, and require that only people who hold certified Class 2 school bus licences drive them.
He said that would cost too much, adding that school groups and sports teams say the lack of available buses and drivers would have a negative impact on their schedules.
Instead, Hache said anyone driving to extracurricular activities must have the appropriate licence for the vehicle being used and they must have completed a mandatory driver safety program being offered by the province.
The province is working to improve national standards for school vehicles and travel schedules for sports, he said.
Transportation Minister Denis Landry said the shoulder of the highway - which was blamed in part for the accident - has been repaired.
The 15-passenger van that crashed was owned by Bathurst Van Inc., a company operated by the school's principal, two vice-principals and a teacher - an arrangement that was not unusual in New Brunswick's school system.
In the aftermath of the accident, 15-passenger vans were banned for student travel in New Brunswick.
Many schools have since acquired 20-passenger mini-buses, but the province isn't helping with the cost. Schools and teams have had to raise money to pay for the vehicles.
Branch said he hopes other provinces learn from New Brunswick's experience, and wished the province had paid attention to other jurisdictions that stopped using 15-passenger vans in the past. In 2002, a National Transportation Safety Board study in the United States raised questions about the van's lack of stability in emergencies.
"Nova Scotia banned the 15-passenger vans years ago ... why didn't we adopt that policy?" Branch asked.
Hache said passenger vans used in the right circumstances are OK for use in schools.
"We want to make sure that priority No. 1 is the safety of the kids and if you have a certified driver, with the proper licence, with proper training, we feel that the kids will be safe," he said.
But the head of the union representing New Brunswick school bus drivers said yellow school buses would be safer.
"We're more trained and qualified," said Delalene Harris-Foran. "I'm not taking anything away from the volunteers, but it shouldn't be volunteers, and the community shouldn't be responsible."
Ana Acevedo, whose son Javier was killed in the crash, said the government has ignored the key recommendations, and simply reworded others in an effort to save money.
"Money shouldn't be put ahead of the safety of the kids," she said. "It should be the opposite ... safety ahead of dollar signs."
Frank Wilson, an engineer at the University of New Brunswick who wrote a Transport Canada report on the crash, has said any vehicle would have had trouble in the icy conditions that night.
The Transport Canada report also questioned the length of time - 16 hours - the driver of the van had been working that day.
Greg Sypher, an investigator for Transport Canada, was critical of the condition of the van in his testimony at the inquest earlier this year, saying it would not have passed a motor vehicle inspection at the time of the accident. He was also critical of the fact the van sported all-season instead of winter tires.
The driver of the van, Wayne Lord, testified that he thought he had snow tires on the vehicle.
He said while the weather was bad as he drove the van back to Bathurst from a night game in Moncton, the 11-year-old vehicle was handling well.
Under the new regulations, the vehicles must now have winter tires, and drivers can only be on duty for a maximum of 14 hours.
Many of the parents also wanted one person to monitor the weather and decide the fate of school trips in the province, but Hache said that's best done by the superintendents in each district.
John McLaughlin, superintendent of School District 15, which includes Bathurst High, said schools will use a better co-ordinated system of weather tracking this year.
"When people are away they can call in to ask what the weather is doing, or if we could check the weather forecast system for whatever the travel area is, and our students would stay overnight if there was any risk at all," he said.
McLaughlin said schools will also have kits ready in case they had to house visiting teams overnight. That was one of the 24 recommendations of the coroner's jury.
Isabelle Hains, whose son Daniel died in the crash, said the government should have been bound to follow all the recommendations made by the coroner's jury.
"We didn't pick and choose that our children were going to be in that van that night," she said.
"We didn't pick and choose that they were going to go in bad weather conditions. We didn't pick and choose that there was all-season tires instead of winter tires. Why should they pick and choose which recommendations should be used and which shouldn't be used."