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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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Students disembark a Micro Bird school bus constructed vehicle operated by Gibsonia, Pa.-based Monark Student Transportation Corp. These types ofvehicles have a capacity of nine passengers or fewer but are built to federal motor vehicle safety standards for school bus construction.
<p>Students disembark a Micro Bird school bus constructed vehicle operated by Gibsonia, Pa.-based Monark Student Transportation Corp. These types of<br />vehicles have a capacity of nine passengers or fewer but are built to federal motor vehicle safety standards for school bus construction.</p>

Strict requirements
Although some dubious drivers slipped through the cracks, the state of Illinois has strict requirements for taxi drivers who transport students to and from school.

State pupil transportation director Cinda Meneghetti tells SBF that these school cab drivers have to earn a restricted school bus driver's permit, which means undergoing "everything that a school bus driver has to have, but no CDL." That includes a medical exam, drug and alcohol testing, a tuberculosis test, background checks, fingerprinting and an eight-hour class.

Cabs that transport students have to be inspected at an Illinois official testing station every six months or 10,000 miles, whichever comes first. Also, vehicles in salvage or junk status cannot be used as school cabs.

Meneghetti, who works for the Illinois State Board of Education in Springfield, notes the safety risks that could have been posed with the Chicago-area taxi drivers whose backgrounds weren't properly checked.

"You put two nonverbal special-ed kids in the back seat, that's not a good situation," Meneghetti says. But she adds that the "secretary of state has been cracking down" on the cab driver background issue.  

Abandoning cabs
Worries about the cab drivers who were transporting its students led Gurnee (Ill.) School District 56 to discontinue the use of taxis a few years ago.

"We were all concerned about the type of people that were driving the taxis," Gurnee Superintendent Dr. John Hutton says. "We knew little or nothing about most of them."

The cost of the taxi service was also a concern, "but a secondary concern," Hutton adds. "Those two things made us say, 'The only way we can control the drivers is to do it ourselves.'"

In an intergovernmental agreement, Gurnee and two neighboring school districts bought six minivans and launched their own alternative transportation program.

"The people driving the vans are school employees," Hutton says. "They've had background checks; we know them. ... All three school districts would say we're very pleased with what's going on."

The districts have found that the vans, which undergo regular inspections and maintenance, are advantageous for transporting small numbers of special-needs and homeless students and for constantly adapting to their schedules and locations.

Gurnee also runs school buses. It shares about 80 yellow buses with one of the neighboring school districts. Although the districts are considering buying more vans, Hutton notes that the vans are not taking over the role of school buses.

"It is a supplement," he says. "Between special-needs kids and homeless families, [the transportation costs] put a lot of pressure on our budget, and we need to supplement with the vans."

Van regulations
Vans are commonly used to transport students in Pennsylvania. These "school vehicles," as they are classified, must have a capacity of 10 passengers or fewer, including the driver.

There are 5,228 of these school vehicles in the state and about 31,024 school buses. Craig Yetter, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, says that school vehicle crash statistics are not broken out from other crash statistics.  

For school buses, there were 393 crashes in 2012, which was 0.3% of the total crashes. In the crashes that involved school buses, three people were killed — none of whom was a school bus occupant.

Pennsylvania school bus drivers are required to have a CDL with passenger and school bus endorsements. For school vehicles, drivers only need a regular, non-commercial license.

While the state doesn't require school vehicle drivers to meet all of the qualifications that are required of school bus drivers — such as an annual physical — Yetter says that "many employers hold their school vehicle drivers to the same standards as the school bus drivers."

Pennsylvania does require school vehicles to undergo semi-annual state inspections. They are also subject to random vehicle and driver spot checks by state police.

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