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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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Taxis are commonly used to transport students in Chicago, among other places.iStock image © benkrut

Taxis are commonly used to transport students in Chicago, among other places.
iStock image © benkrut

When school started in Dallas this year, many students and parents expecting to see a yellow school bus roll up the street were surprised by what arrived: taxi cabs, vans and SUVs.

News reports quoted bewildered parents. Some shared concerns about their children being placed in unconventional transportation arrangements. Other parents seemed to be more upset that they weren't informed of this significant change. And some just wanted the school bus back.

“Old yellow school bus,” parent Chris Williams told CBS DFW. “You can’t take that out of school. It’s like taking those No. 2 pencils out of there."

Across the country, many school districts and contractors are employing a variety of vehicles to supplement traditional school bus service. Taxis, minivans and other small vehicles are often used to cut costs and shorten ride times for homeless or special-needs students who travel long distances to school.

Few would contend that a school bus is more efficient than a car in certain situations — shuttling one child 30 miles to a special school, for example — but the safety implications of transporting students in these alternative vehicles have become a contentious issue in the pupil transportation industry.
Surprising ride
In Dallas Independent School District (ISD), the bulk of the concerns apparently stemmed from parents not being informed of their children's new transportation arrangements before the school year began.

"Although the district and ALC [American Logistics Co.] attempted to reach out to parents, unfortunately many parents were not made aware of the change to student transportation services," Gregg Prettyman, vice president of corporate communications for ALC, tells SBF.

ALC arranges alternative transportation services for Dallas and other school districts in numerous states.

"If you show up at the bus stop on the first day and there’s a stranger in a minivan or a sedan, even if they have a placard [with school info], no one's going to feel comfortable with that — myself included," Prettyman says, adding that the key to success is “educating parents about these types of changes and the measures taken to ensure that the drivers and vehicles are safe and qualified for this type of service."

Dallas ISD officials did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting an interview for this article, but the district posted on its website a detailed message to parents about the alternative transportation program.

Cutting costs, drive time
Transportation for Dallas ISD is provided by intermediate agency Dallas County Schools. Earlier this year, the agency sought an independent service that could provide cost-effective transportation on routes having fewer than 10 students, for which a school bus is not required by state or federal law.

According to the Dallas ISD message to parents, the goals of this effort were:

1. To reduce transportation costs and reallocate dollars to schools.

2. To reduce the drive time that students were enduring on school buses.

ALC was chosen as the contractor to provide this alternative transportation service. Dallas County Schools and Dallas ISD had used a car/van service in the past for about 100 routes, but this year the program was greatly expanded, to more than 400 routes. Many of the passengers attend special-needs schools, academies or magnet schools.

ALC reportedly took numerous steps to prepare for its increased load of students this year. Among them:

• Credentialing and training of more than 400 drivers.
• Vehicle placards with route number and destination school.
• Vehicle inspections.
• Route tags for children to help ensure that they get on the right vehicle.
• Outreach pamphlets for parents and schools.

In its message to parents, Dallas ISD said that at the beginning of the school year, some vehicles did not have clear identification, which caused "understandable concern and confusion among parents and students."

The district said that by the end of the first week of school, all of the alternative vehicles would be clearly identifiable as being "official Dallas County transportation vehicles."

"We will continue to work with Dallas County to make adjustments so that all students and parents feel comfortable with their transportation," the district message said. "We sincerely apologize for any confusion and reiterate our commitment to the safety of all students."

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