Nearly every State Transportation Administration is taking a more critical and careful look at how child care centers transport children. Several serious accidents, some resulting in fatalities, have caused the child care industry, the insurance industry, and State and Federal governments to seriously evaluate current regulations and practices.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for example, has proposed changes that tighten the interpretation of present Federal regulations regarding who should be using school buses as defined by how they use these buses for transporting children. In fact, NHTSA reasons, that if school buses were used, the fatalities from the recent surge in “nonconforming” van accidents may have been avoided.
Indeed, the industry record for safe school bus transportation is exceptionally good. Every year, approximately 440,000 public school buses travel about 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5 million children to and from school and school-related activities. The school bus occupant fatality rate of 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is much lower than the rates for passenger cars (1.5 per million VMT) or light trucks and vans (1.3 per 100 million VMT)” (This excerpt is from the 9/17/98 NHSTA communication on child care agencies and nonconforming van/school bus usage. The statisitcs on fatalities are from NHTSA.)
What is a “Nonconforming” Van?
Just what does the term “nonconforming” mean? In the context of our usage, it simply means that the van does not conform to or meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards required for a van to be called a school bus.
School buses are built to protect children in a crash. The vans that are commonly being used as school buses are built to carry cargo. Crash safety for the cargo area is not a primary concern of the engineers who designed it (excluding the front seat driver and passenger). The sidewalls of a typical cargo van consist of one thin layer of sheet metal with an interior liner that is nothing more than cardboard and/or foam with a plastic finish for some sound insulation. Any kind of side impact that hits above the floor line will go right through this sidewall material.
School buses achieve their high level of occupant safety through the use of a construction concept called compartmentalization—strong, well padded, well anchored, high backed, evenly spaced seats. This concept provides a protective envelope around the student, mitigating the energy forces involved in a collision. In small school buses, there is the addition of a lap safety belt, which can also be used to anchor a child safety restraint for infants.
Purchasing a Van and the Law
It is illegal for an automotive dealer to knowingly sell you a passenger van for use as a school bus without a special school bus conversion that meets Federal School Bus Safety Requirements. Furthermore, if your agency holds or conducts any classes that educate the children in your care, then under this law, you are considered a school. And, if you know the van will be used as a school bus, it is illegal for you to buy it. There are substantial fines and penalties for the selling dealer who attempts to sell you a van under these circumstances. If there is an accident, the liability issues are tremendous, and the moral issues are devastating. If you buy or lease a van personally (in an attempt to keep the selling dealer uninformed) and then lease or sell it back to your business, and you know it will be used to transport children, you are personally liable.
The Law Is Changing
The regulation of the use of “nonconforming” vans by child care agencies is changing. There’s nothing definite yet on the congressional agenda, but expect it soon. However, the NHTSA has implemented new definitions requiring the use of a school bus.
According to the NHTSA, “While we agree that child care facilities providing custodial care are not schools, we cannot agree that all buses sold to such a facility are excluded from Federal school bus regulations regardless of the intended use of the vehicles. If a bus will be used significantly for transporting children to or from school, such a vehicle is a school bus, even if the purchaser is a child care facility.”
Whatever happens, it is most likely that once these definitions become established, from a legal perspective, “nonconforming” vans will not qualify as a “school bus” and will probably be defined as an “unsafe” vehicle no matter when you purchased them. These changes will likely apply only to new purchases, going forward: existing vehicles in operation will be probably be gradually phased out. However, there’s a “Catch 22” here. While the requirements and definitions are being resolved, if you knowingly use an “unsafe” vehicle to transport children, you are faced with the moral responsibility of using them as well as the potential for liability.
While the “nonconforming” van usage has currently created a “hot” safety and moral issue for child care providers, there are solutions available right now from school bus manufacturers. School buses are available that are similar to the vans currently in use at most child care agencies. They drive and feel like the vans being driven now. There are other choices built on “cutaway” chassis as well as specialty buses for carrying the physically impaired. In the coming months, there will be further rulings and clarifications from state and federal governments concerning the use of school buses.
Peter Wade has been the marketing and advertising manager for U. S. Bus Corporation for five years. He can be reached at 914-357-2510.