In January 2000, 45 CFR 1310 was issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That final rule set the immediate and future standards for Head Start transportation. With deadlines of one to six years, there seemed to be enough time for required transitions. Some Head Start grantees began immediately to plan implementation; others must have thought tomorrow would never come.
More than a year has passed since the deadline for compliance with most of the requirements of the final rule. Pre-employment screening and personnel procedures, driver and monitor training, proper licensing (CDLs) of drivers, drug and alcohol testing and miscellaneous other aspects of Head Start transportation activities should have been implemented by Jan. 18, 2002. Perhaps the most dreaded requirements lie in the future, but the future is almost here. The question is whether or not Head Start programs are keeping abreast of the requirements.
Monitors on buses
By Jan. 20, 2004, at least one monitor must be assigned to every vehicle that transports one or more Head Start passengers — even public transit buses and school buses operated by local school districts. Many Head Start programs already have assigned monitors to vehicles and, thereby, are in compliance with the requirement specified in 45 CFR 1310.15(c). Monitors may be volunteers, or they may be employees; they may be assigned additional duties, or they may serve only as monitors. Regardless of the program design, at least one adult must be placed on every vehicle that transports any number of Head Start passengers to and from Head Start programs and related activities.
Monitors must “ensure the safety of the children while they ride, board or exit the vehicle and [assist] the driver during emergencies.” They must be trained before beginning their duties.
By Jan. 20, 2004, every vehicle must be equipped with appropriate passenger safety restraints for adults and Head Start passengers, and all passengers on Head Start vehicles must be properly restrained. Child safety restraints (for passengers who weigh 50 pounds or less) or appropriate restraint devices for passengers, including adults, who weigh more than 50 pounds are required. (And, if vehicles used to transport Head Start passengers currently are equipped with such devices, restraints must be in use at this time.)
Individual Head Start grantees or their transporters are authorized to select the types of securement devices to be installed, but they must comply with FMVSS 213, 49 CFR 571.213 (1310.3). Previous confusion regarding the securement of safety vests directly to seat backs on school buses was answered with the NHTSA interim ruling issued in October 2002. While this may be cause for optimism for Head Start transporters, they must understand the caveats involved. First, the rule is an interim rule. It can be modified, reissued as a final rule or allowed to expire. Secondly, either seats behind the seat to which these restraints are attached must be occupied with restrained passengers, or the seats must remain unoccupied. Thirdly, after Feb. 1, 2003, labels must be affixed to the restraints: “WARNING! This restraint must only be used on school bus seats. Entire seat directly behind must be unoccupied or have restrained occupants.”
On the basis of the interim ruling, for Head Starts that continue to transport children in vans, there is little doubt that seat back-attached restraint devices are not to be used. For children who weigh 50 pounds or less, car seats may prove to be the only authorized method of securement.
And what about seat belts for occupants who weigh more than 50 pounds? If belting must be installed, seats must be seat belt-ready — that is, they must be designed for mounting seat belts to the seat frame. If transporters are required to change out seats to accommodate seat belts, vehicle replacement might be the wiser, more cost effective choice.
As with the requirement for monitors, all transporters of Head Start passengers — including school districts and public transit operations — must comply with this regulation.
School buses or allowable alternate vehicles
The final phase of the final rule is supported by a deadline of Jan. 18, 2006, when vans, public transit buses and other non-school buses must be replaced by school buses or “allowable alternate vehicles” (AAVs). (AAVs are school buses in every respect except they do not include alternately flashing lights and stop arms to control traffic and they are painted colors other than school bus yellow and black. AAVs are authorized in states that do not permit school buses to transport Head Start passengers.)
The cost of vehicle replacement among Head Starts that already are not complying with this requirement may become a major hurdle, especially in light of today’s economy and the forecast for the near future. Factor in school districts that may discontinue transporting Head Start passengers due to the cost of complying with the requirements for monitors and occupant restraints or transit agencies that do not provide school buses or AAVs and thereby are disqualified as Head Start transporters, and the future becomes more clouded.
Ready or not?
Time may be of the essence. Head Start transporters who have kept abreast of requirements published in the final rule and have been preparing to meet future deadlines more than likely will find January 2004 and January 2006 to be little more than bumps in the road. Those who have not met the challenges may be riding a runaway horse. They may be confronted with options that otherwise might have been avoided. Purchase or lease vehicles? Conduct in-house or outsource any or all of the transportation operation? Maintain or relinquish the grant to conduct Head Start programs? Suddenly, 2004 and 2006 are not so distant! In terms of planning and financing, both deadlines are almost here. Are Head Start programs ready?