A long-awaited draft regulation on school bus safety management was passed in principle on Wednesday at a State Council executive meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, according to a statement released on Thursday.
The draft regulation asks local governments to ensure that students attend schools near their homes or boarding schools to "reduce students' traffic risks".
In rural areas that cannot ensure nearby schooling or convenient public transport to schools, measures should be taken to ensure students' access to school buses.
The draft states that county level and higher governments will be responsible for the management of school bus safety within their jurisdiction. It also sets obligations and responsibilities of the schools and service providers to guarantee safety.
According to the draft, higher technical standards will be set for school buses and stricter requirements for the drivers. School buses will have the right of way on the road and a speed limit will be set for them. People involved in unlawful school bus services or uses will be held legally and possibly criminally responsible.
The State Council will publicize the draft regulation for implementation after further revision, the statement said.
"The draft regulation reflects that the government has been aware of the importance of school bus safety since the lesson of a series of traffic accidents. And the authority is reconsidering the uneven distribution of educational resources," said Zhang Yutang, a retired professor of education at Sichuan Normal University.
The regulation was prompted by a string of road accidents involving school students and preschoolers in November and December.
At a government conference in late November, Wen emphasized the need for "rapidly" publishing draft safety regulations and standards for school buses, and the Legislative Affairs Office published a draft one month later for public comment.
Zhang said the regulation itself is not enough to ensure students' transportation safety.
"China is so large that conditions vary between different regions," Zhang said. "The regulation can provide only principles for different regions to solve their own problems, but whether those principles are thoroughly applied remains a question."
The statement on the regulation did not specify which department buys the school buses or pays for the drivers.
"The education departments and the schools do not have enough money to buy the buses or maintain them, so local public transportation authorities should take the responsibility," Zhang said.
"In addition, if the drivers are not well paid, they will always be in a hurry to drop children off and make more money with the bus, which is the reason so many school buses are excessively overloaded. And only the transportation department can afford to hire so many drivers."
Fan Kaijian, deputy director of the education bureau in Zhaoyang district, Zhaotong, Yunnan province, said the bureau has no plan to buy any school buses in the near future, even though some students live far from their schools.
"The schools are in the mountains where the road is narrow and dangerous. Although some students walk two hours to school every day along the winding trails, driving them there could take even longer," Fan said.
On the other hand, Fan said that the education bureau does not have money for school bus service.
"We still have many school buildings to maintain and teaching facilities to buy, once we have money. It is unlikely we would spend the money on bus."