BEIJING Nov 16 (Reuters) - Eighteen nursery school children were killed when a coal truck slammed into their "drastically" overcrowded school van in northwest China on Thursday, local media reported, prompting an outcry about the country's deadly roads.
The collision on a rural road in Zhengning County, Gansu province, also killed the driver of the van and a teacher onboard, the Xinhua news agency said.
Another 44 people were hurt -- 10 of them seriously -- in the accident, one of the worst on China's roads for some time.
An initial investigation showed the van was "drastically overloaded", carrying 64 people instead of the nine passengers permitted, said Chinese state radio news.
Pictures on Chinese news websites showed the crumpled wreckage of the yellow van that was struck by the much larger coal truck on the way to the nursery.
Investigators were examining the cause, said news reports which left unclear whether the truck or van driver might be to blame.
Officials hurried to the scene to offer support and promised a crackdown on road hazards. But a flood of messages on Chinese web sites echoed with outrage about lax safety enforcement.
"The nursery school can't shirk responsibility for such serious overcrowding," said one comment on Sina's "Weibo" microblogging site.
Another said: "Why don't we protect children in the same way we protect our leaders?"
Chinese authorities have tried to crack down on dangerous driving but breakneck economic growth, and rapid expansion in the number of roads and drivers, creates many menaces, especially on poorly policed rural roads.
In 2010, Chinese police officially recorded 219,521 traffic accidents that led to deaths or injuries, including 65,225 fatalities, a fall of 3.7 percent on the previous year.
In a study published by the World Health Organisation in 2010, however, experts found that such official data seriously undercounted the number of road deaths in China, which they estimated to be almost twice the number reported by police. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Paul Tait)