Real savings of vans are small compared with possible losses

Terry Thomas
Posted on August 1, 1997

On Feb. 4, a small passenger car sped through a stop sign in Youngstown, OH, and broadsided a 48-passenger school bus carrying 13 special-needs children. The bus spun 360 degrees and stopped 20 feet from the car. All 13 students walked away from the accident uninjured, but emergency services had to use the Jaws of Life to remove the four occupants of the car. The bus sustained considerable frame damage; the car was totaled. One of the television reporters covering the accident took care to mention that the Youngstown Board of Education requires that all students with disabilities ride in yellow school buses - no vans allowed. What injuries might have resulted if the 13 students had been riding in a van instead of a yellow school bus? Would they have been able to walk away, slightly shaken, and a little late for dinner? Would the news reporter have mentioned that the board of education didn't require that all children with disabilities ride in yellow buses? Bus requirement saved lives
My company is responsible for transporting more than 3,000 special-needs passengers every day, including the aforementioned students in Youngstown. Crashes like that one have happened before, and they'll happen again. The television report said it all: "These children have the board of education to thank for their lives because many other districts allow the use of vans to transport small numbers of children." Concerns regarding the use of non-conforming vans are well documented:

  • Arkansas' attorney general ruled that potential liability, rather than federal law, is sufficiently convincing for school districts to favor the use of buses over vans.
  • The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services describes the growing use of passenger vans for school transportation as an "alarming situation with potentially disastrous consequences."
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states automobile dealers cannot sell a van for the purpose of transporting children to and from school. What's the real cost?
    It's time to focus on the real cost of van use for transporting schoolchildren; both financial and non-financial. The average cost of a yellow school bus today is $55,000. With a useful life of 11 years, the annualized cost is $5,000. The average cost of a van is $20,000. With a useful life of 5 years, the annualized cost is $4,000. That is an approximate annualized cost savings of $1,000, plus savings in fuel, maintenance and insurance expense. Let's assume a total cost savings of $2,000 per year. But many van transporters say the actual savings are much greater. Why? Because the law allows school districts to hire van drivers who do not have commercial driver's licenses (CDLs) and thus are not required to meet knowledge and skills standards required of school bus drivers. All this to save a few thousand dollars a year. In non-financial terms, the issues are even clearer. Not only are vans structurally weaker than school buses, they lack the padded seat backs, emergency exits and traffic control devices that are required of buses. Buses, large and small, are safer than vans. Some colleagues and I would like to offer a modest proposal. What if all states permitted the use of vans for a maximum of 10 passengers, but required that all pupil transporters, whether in vans or buses, meet the same operating requirements, such as driver licensing, training, insurance levels, background checks, vehicle maintenance and state inspections? If this were the case, wouldn't fewer districts opt for vans, realizing that a cost-benefit analysis could not justify the reduction in safety and service? Terry Thomas is president of Special Busing Inc.
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