Attendees of the National Child Care Association's (NCCA) annual conference in Las Vegas in mid-March put their heads together in an attempt to understand the regulations governing childcare transportation. In a session titled "So, You Need to Buy a Bus?" a panel of experts updated NCCA members on the federal and state policies governing childcare transportation and the vehicle options available to childcare transporters.

The presenters included John Womack, acting chief counsel at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); Doug Meyers, risk manager for Aramark Transportation Services in Colorado; Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS); and Ron Campbell, school bus sales manager at Girardin Minibus in Drummondville, Quebec.

Federal regs and enforcement
The overriding concern of attendees was whether or not they were breaking the law by purchasing and using vans to transport the children in their programs. "Am I operating illegally?" asked one attendee from Pennsylvania who recently purchased some vans. Gauthier explained that it is the vendor, not the purchaser, who is held accountable by NHTSA, which regulates the manufacture and first sale of vehicles.

Effective February 20, 2001, vendors are supposed to sell only school buses or allowable alternate vehicles to Head Start agencies. Childcare providers, however, have trouble understanding where exactly they stand. There is currently no federal prohibition of the use of vans by childcare providers. Panelists urged attendees to check into their state laws, which may be more stringent than federal standards. But regardless of the laws, panelists said it is clear that school buses (or allowable alternate vehicles) are the safest choice for childcare transportation. "The ultimate regulator is not the state; it's the jury," said Gauthier.

Conforming vehicles and operators
Campbell of Girardin Minibus showed slides of the small buses available from various manufacturers, including Girardin's CBII Community Bus, designed specifically for childcare transportation. "It's very true that we basically build a different bus for every state," he said. The goal is to make one that will fit users' needs nationwide, said Campbell.

Meyers addressed the issue of training for drivers of commercial vehicles, including pre-employment requirements, drug and alcohol testing and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. Meyers explained that you should have a file on each of your commercial vehicles, listing its inspections and other information. The DOT number should be affixed to all commercial vehicles with a capacity of eight or more passengers. "The DOT likes to come in and take a look. Be prepared to show these things off," he said, adding that his operation had just been audited earlier that week. The bottom line, he said, is that these regulations and inspections help make drivers safer.

Panelists explained that the childcare sector has grown tremendously since the early 1970s. Childcare transportation programs have also grown, but without much attention from regulatory agencies. Attendees expressed interest in working with schools to transport children from childcare centers to school and back again. Audience member Jill Eiland of KinderCare Learning Centers Inc. in Portland, Ore., said that she would like to see schools picking up and dropping off at childcare centers. "We don't want to be in the transportation business," she said.