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October 15, 2013  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Gauging the safety of school bus alternatives

Many school districts and contractors are employing a variety of vehicles to supplement traditional yellow bus service. These alternative arrangements often cut costs and shorten ride times, but the safety implications of transporting students in taxis, vans and other non-school bus vehicles have become a contentious issue.

by Thomas McMahon - Also by this author


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W.L. Roenigk Inc., a Sarver, Pa.-based contractor, runs a fleet of about 463 vans and about 500 school buses. The vans range in capacity up to 10 passengers. The yellow sign on the front says “SCHOOL STUDENTS.”
<p>W.L. Roenigk Inc., a Sarver, Pa.-based contractor, runs a fleet of about 463 vans and about 500 school buses. The vans range in capacity up to 10 passengers. The yellow sign on the front says “SCHOOL STUDENTS.”</p>

Contract change
About eight years ago, Butler (Pa.) Area School District stopped the use of vans to transport its students. The district put in its transportation contract that only school buses or school bus constructed vehicles could be used.

The change was partly to ensure that students would be riding in vehicles that meet federal school bus standards, and partly because the district's vans weren't holding up well.

"We had some kids that were destroying our [Dodge] Caravans," says Brenda Collins, transportation supervisor for Butler Area School District. "They were tearing them apart inside."

While the drivers of school bus constructed vehicles aren't required to have CDLs, Collins says that the district's contractor "puts them through all of the training as if they were getting a CDL."

In assessing the safety of school bus constructed vehicles versus vans, Collins cites rollover strength as particularly important. She points to a September accident in Lee County, Fla., in which a church van with 16 people on board flipped after a tire tread separated. The van's roof was crushed, several passengers were ejected and three people were killed.

While a new van that carries as many passengers as that in the Florida crash couldn't legally be sold for student transportation without meeting school bus FMVSS, similar vans with a capacity of 10 or fewer are permissible.

"Those are the types of vans people are transporting children in. ... I see them driving around all the time," Collins says. "I really think school districts need to be careful using those vehicles."

Van advantages
Sue Roenigk has a different take on vans. Her family's contracting company, Sarver, Pa.-based W.L. Roenigk Inc., runs nearly as many vans as school buses.

The company's fleet is composed of about 500 school buses and about 463 vans. The van contingent includes many seven-passenger Dodge Caravans and the larger GMC Savanas and Ford E-Series vans, ranging in capacity up to 10 passengers.

Sue Roenigk, who is president of the company, says that the vans are especially adept at maneuvering in and out of driveways to pick up students with disabilities away from traffic.

"There's a longer time frame for loading special-needs students," Roenigk says. "A smaller van gets us in the driveway, and there's a lot less difficulty backing out. Something bigger couldn't do that."

In fact, the maneuverability is the key reason that the contractor uses vans.

"It's not so much the fuel economy; it's more about getting into the area," Roenigk says.

Those areas include urban neighborhoods in Pittsburgh as well as rural environs far outside of the city. On the more rugged rural roads, W.L. Roenigk relies on its vans that have all-wheel drive and can turn around at tight dead ends.

Training and testing
W.L. Roenigk's van drivers undergo training on the type of vehicle they will be driving as well as on other safety and student-related topics that school bus drivers are trained on.

Also, all of the company's drivers and other employees, including mechanics, have to pass the same background checks and drug testing.

W.L. Roenigk does not run school bus constructed vehicles. According to Sue Roenigk, they have some disadvantages compared to vans — for example, the maneuverability is not as good, she says. Beyond that, W.L. Roenigk's school district customers haven't requested that the contractor use school bus constructed vehicles.

Roenigk maintains that the vans her family's company — and many other school transportation providers — use to transport students are safe.

"We feel that 10-passenger and smaller vans are built to specifications for people to haul their own children in," Roenigk says. "The manufacturers of these vans are doing a great job of making safe vehicles — they're making them to government standards."

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