More than 300 mad scientists from 48 states (and Guam) gathered recently to create a modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. Its vital parts were cobbled together by groups of scientists and then stitched into a single body by the entire assembly during a four-day operation. The “monster” is a sprawling document called the “National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures.” The “mad scientists” are school transportation officials who attended the National Conference on School Tranportation, held every five years in Warrensburg, Mo. My apologies to Mary Shelley for any confusion. Please don’t leap to the conclusion that I disapprove of the mad scientists and their endeavor. I don’t. What they do is a service to the entire school transportation community. We should be thankful that 300-plus individuals care enough about their profession to gather even every five years to conduct marathon debates about equipment specifications and operational procedures, among other things. Yes, the process can be maddening. If you’re not intimately familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order, you will not understand some of the arcane parliamentary procedure. Nor will you agree with everyone who steps to the microphone to voice an opinion on the proposed amendment to the proposed amendment of the latest motion. At some point, however, you have to chuckle at the fourth attempt to create a definition of “left” and “right” for the glossary, especially when it includes a reference to the direction in which the bus is traveling. (Although not recommended, school buses can travel in reverse.)
Have we created a monster?
At the risk of belaboring the Frankenstein’s monster metaphor, I think it’s important to discuss the fear that this creation eventually could be turned against its creators. This apprehension was obvious to all as the delegates struggled with the mission of creating a document that can be used to improve the safety and efficiency of school transportation while simultaneously trying to anticipate how the document might be used against them. The general concern, of course, is that the document can be employed by godless lawyers to whomp the bejeezus out of school districts and contractors who might be named in a liability lawsuit involving one of their buses. I can almost hear the lawyers at the deposition. “Mr./Ms. [insert your name here], why didn’t you install the aforementioned safety equipment on your buses, as recommended in the National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures? Shall I read you the passage?” This question — or rather the fear of someday having to answer this question — is why delegates were reluctant to make the document too restrictive. Agreement on the name of the document itself required more than an hour’s debate. As you may remember, the 1995 document was called “National Standards for School Transportation.” This time, however, a majority of delegates felt that the word “standards” was too dangerous to put into the hands of a society as litigious as ours.
By any name, it’s intent is clear
I honestly don’t think it matters what you call the document or how many caveats are attached to the introduction. A shrewd lawyer (is that redundant?) can construct a compelling argument from the copy on the inside flap of a pack of matches, much less a document of more than 300 pages approved by representatives from nearly every state in the union. The document’s purpose is the key consideration. It’s meant to provide guidance to those seeking it, whether they be state officials, transportation directors, training managers or manufacturers. It’s not meant to be a smoking gun. In fact, reading the document and staying in touch with its recommended practices is a good way to minimize your chances of ever being deposed by a lawyer, shrewd or otherwise.