Now that the nation’s fleet of 450,000 school buses is again embracing the challenge of transporting 24 million children to and from school each day, I’d like to air my opinions on a couple of positive developments initiated by our friends in Washington, D.C.
The first is the establishment of a new class of school buses, one that I believe will help to replace the 12- to 15-passenger vans currently operated by far too many schools and Head Start grantees.
The multifunction school activity bus, more easily called MFSAB ("miff-sab"), was adopted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a final rule that took effect in late August.
The MFSAB, which cannot be used for home-to-school transportation, is an ideal alternative to the non-conforming van, which, as we all know, is not nearly as safe as a school bus for a variety of reasons that I’m sure you’re all familiar with.
Unlike a school bus, the MFSAB isn’t required to have traffic-control devices such as stop arms and flashing warning lights — the basic safeguards for picking children up or dropping them off at roadside locations. The MFSABs are required, however, to meet all other school bus crashworthiness and post-crash standards.
Perfect for Head Start
For these reasons, MFSABs are ideal for Head Start transportation or for busing students from a school to an after-school facility. Another benefit is that the final rule will help Head Start grantees obtain funding for buses through the Federal Transit Administration.
The MFSABs can also be used for coordinated transportation. For example, Head Start agencies could use the buses to transport children from Head Start facilities to schools in the morning, and local social service agencies could use the buses in the afternoon to transport the elderly.
So who’s going to be driving these buses? According to NHTSA, a passenger endorsement will be required, but not necessarily a school bus license. Each state will make its own decision on that count. Because safety is paramount, I would urge state agencies to require the school bus certification.
Requiring this licensing is also important because NHTSA officials decided, wisely, not to limit the size of the MFSABs to a maximum GVWR of 15,000 pounds. That means that drivers of MFSABs could be piloting buses of 26,000 pounds GVWR or more, a challenging task even for experienced school bus drivers.
Vans can be safer
Less than a week after NHTSA published its final rule on the MFSAB, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a series of recommendations regarding 12- and 15-passenger vans.
Foremost among its recommendations, the NTSB urged the appropriate federal agencies and national associations to develop a program that trains drivers to safely operate 12- and 15-passenger vans. Especially when fully loaded, these vans can be difficult to handle in emergency situations.
In addition, the safety board urged NHTSA to require that new vans meet FMVSS 216 (roof crush resistance) because these vehicles are involved in a higher percentage of rollover accidents than cars and smaller vans.
Non-conforming vans are not as safe as school buses for transporting children, but they are out there. We need to make sure they’re operated as safely as possible.