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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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What the feds have said about vans
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other federal agencies have issued numerous warnings about the risks associated with 12- and 15-passenger vans, but the feds seem to be largely silent on the use of smaller vehicles — minivans, cabs, etc. — to transport students.

A NHTSA spokesperson did not fulfill a request for an interview for this article, other than to direct SBF to a NHTSA web page on the use of nonconforming vehicles for school transportation (go to

Here are key points from that statement and another NHTSA message on vans.

•    Federal requirements regulate new vehicles that carry 11 or more persons that are sold for transporting students to or from school or school-related events. Those vehicles are required to meet all federal motor vehicle safety standards for school buses.
•    Federal regulations apply only to the manufacture and sale or lease of new vehicles.
•    Each state prescribes its own regulations that apply to the use of any vehicle that is used to transport students.
•    In a December 2010 letter to state motor vehicle administrators, the heads of NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said that their agencies’ data indicate that nine-, 12- and 15-passenger vans “are often inadequately maintained, and the tires are especially vulnerable to deterioration as they age. Because these vehicles have unique handling characteristics, they display particular sensitivity to rollovers, particularly when they are fully loaded.” (The full letter is available at
•    In the same letter, the agency officials included a reminder that “pre-primary, elementary and secondary schools should not use 12- or 15-passenger vans for transporting students because they do not provide the same level of safety as school buses meeting NHTSA’s safety standards.”

Illinois rules for student transportation vehicle drivers      
Vehicle Passengers Uses Driver requirements
School bus Manufacture capacity Curriculum-related and non-curriculum trips School bus driver permit (CDL)
Car (taxi cabs, district-owned cars) Manufacture capacity Curriculum-related trips Restricted school bus driver permit (non-CDL)
Car (taxi cabs, district-owned cars) Manufacture capacity Non-curriculum trips

Valid driver’s license
Van 10 or less, including driver Curriculum-related trips Restricted school bus driver permit (non-CDL)
Van 10 or less, including driver Non-curriculum trips Valid driver’s license
Passenger cargo vans 11 to 15 Not allowed Not allowed

This abridged table shows driver requirements for student transportation-related uses of different types of vehicles. The full version of the table, which can be downloaded here, also shows the requirements for various uses of multi-function school activity buses.

OEMs point to safety advantages of school bus construction

Manufacturers of small and large school buses are consistent in their stance against the use of vans to transport students.

The OEMs point to the superior safety record and strict construction standards of school buses. For low-capacity applications, these companies offer alternatives to vans: school bus constructed vehicles or, as they are often called, multi-purpose passenger vehicles (MPVs).

Steve Girardin, president of Micro Bird, says that his company has had success in a few states in promoting its MPV certified to school bus standards.

“We’ve gotten good traction in trying to get people to understand the safety benefit,” Girardin says.

Bob West, product manager of Type A at Thomas Built Buses, highlights the fact that vans do not meet school bus safety standards. On the other hand, the company’s Minotour MPV is built to those standards, including rollover protection, joint strength and seat protection.

“With these standards in place, our MPV is safer than passenger vans, minivans or other personal vehicles that may be used to transport children,” West says.

According to Tony Augsburger, senior director of sales at Collins Bus Corp., when vans or other non-school bus vehicles transport students, “there are risks associated with them. We strongly encourage the use of a certified Type A school bus, MFSAB [multi-function school activity bus] or nine-passenger MPV versus a non-school bus vehicle.”

Brian Barrington, national sales manager for Trans Tech Bus, says that he has seen an increase in the use of nine-passenger vans, particularly for transporting small sports teams.

“We understand that there is a need [for smaller vehicles],” Barrington says. “However, the price difference to put children into a vehicle that is school bus constructed is minimal and should be the way to go.”
Officials from Blue Bird Corp., IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses — which are members of the American School Bus Council — pointed to statistics showing that students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than in a passenger car or other non-school bus vehicle.

“IC Bus believes the safest way to transport our children is in a school bus vehicle,” IC Bus President John McKinney added.

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Read more about: Blue Bird Corp., Collins Bus Corp., FMCSA, IC Bus, Micro Bird Inc., NHTSA, Thomas Built Buses, Trans Tech Bus

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