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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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Monark Student Transportation Corp.’s fleet includes about 90 school bus constructed vehicles (pictured), which President Mark D. Schmitt calls “a safer way [than vans] to transport children in those smaller capacities.”
<p>Monark Student Transportation Corp.’s fleet includes about 90 school bus constructed vehicles (pictured), which President Mark D. Schmitt calls “a safer way [than vans] to transport children in those smaller capacities.”</p>
Divisive issue

School transportation officials in Pennsylvania are divided on whether vans should be used to carry students.

Mark D. Schmitt, president and owner of Gibsonia, Pa.-based Monark Student Transportation Corp., is one of the more vocal critics of van use.

"Ultimately, our job is to make sure children are being transported as safely as they can possibly be," Schmitt says. "The school bus is the safest form of ground transportation in the world. ... [Yet] thousands of schoolchildren are being transported in vans. It just makes no sense."

Under federal law, new vans with a capacity of more than 10 passengers (including the driver) cannot be sold or leased to transport students if they do not meet federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) for school buses.

As recently as 2010, the heads of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sent a letter about van safety issues to all 50 states’ motor vehicle administrators. Included in the letter was a reminder that 12- and 15-passenger vans should not be used to transport students "because they do not provide the same level of safety as school buses meeting NHTSA’s safety standards."

However, according to Schmitt, many of these same large vans have been converted to a shorter, smaller, legal passenger capacity to be sold for transporting students.

"It’s constructed the exact same way as the bigger van that’s been outlawed," he says, "so what did [the federal restrictions] accomplish?"

Van alternative
For student transportation situations that call for a smaller vehicle, Schmitt and some others in the industry advocate what they say is a safer alternative to vans: school bus constructed vehicles, as they are called in Pennsylvania.

These nine-passenger vehicles aren't technically school buses, and they don't have the flashing red and amber lights and stop arm — and therefore can't stop traffic. But they are built to the same FMVSS for construction as full-size school buses. That includes the same windows and mirrors, joint and rollover strength, seat padding and compartmentalization, rear emergency exit and heavy-gauge steel side-impact barriers.

"We have a vehicle that is built exactly the same as a school bus," Schmitt says. "It's a safer way [than vans] to transport children in those smaller capacities."

Schmitt's contracting company, Monark Student Transportation Corp., operates about 310 large and small school buses and about 90 school bus constructed vehicles. The latter are often used for transporting special-needs students, but they're suited for other applications as well, such as picking up the overflow on a route that exceeds the capacity of a regular school bus. A small team trip is another fit.

As with the school vehicle vans in Pennsylvania, a CDL is not required to drive a school bus constructed vehicle. Schmitt says that this helps in dealing with driver shortages.

"One of the beautiful things about having a small vehicle like this available is that you don't have to have a CDL," he says. "This vehicle gives us the opportunity to hire and employ more drivers while they train for their CDL."

Schmitt is also the president and owner of Blue Bird Bus Sales of Pittsburgh Inc., which offers school bus constructed vehicles, but he insists that his advocacy for the vehicles is about safety, not sales.

"I'm obligated to let people know there's something safer [than vans] out there," he says. "My competitors are selling them as well."

As a price comparison, a new school bus constructed vehicle typically costs around $9,000 more than a new school vehicle van, according to Schmitt. "But what price do you put on safety?" he adds.

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