Federal Panel Seeks Tighter Limits on Vans, Small Buses for School Use

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School buses are far safer than vans in crashes, and states should allow only the special yellow buses to regularly transport groups of children, a federal safety panel declared last week.

The recommendation came at the end of the panel's investigation of four deadly school-related crashes in the past two years involving vans or buses that did not meet federal standards for school buses.

"There's a problem with using these types of vehicles," said Jennifer Hopkins, the National Transportation Safety Board engineer who coordinated the investigation. "School buses are built much better to protect our children."

The investigation examined crashes in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee that killed a total of nine people--eight students and one teacher--and injured 36 more.

Vans are popular with some schools and contractors because they cost less than buses--about $20,000 to $25,000 for a 15- passenger van, compared with $27,000 to $32,000 for a small bus that meets federal standards, Ms. Hopkins said. But the safety trade-off is not acceptable, she said.

The NTSB investigators said the risk of injury and death would have been less in the accidents they studied if the children had been riding in a school bus rather than a van or, in one case, a "specialty bus"-- a slightly bigger vehicle like the ones rental-car companies use at airports.

Better Odds

Owing largely to 1977 federal regulations, school buses are built with extra body strength and interior cushioning that are not required of other vehicles. Those features offer added protection to passengers in a crash.

"The skeleton of a school bus wraps around it, and the outer skin is thick metal," said Harlan E. Tull, the administrative director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in Dover, Del.

Federal law forbids dealers from selling vans and nonstandard buses when the primary use will be transporting children to or from school or school-related activities. But it is left to the states to prohibit schools, transportation contractors, and day-care centers from putting such vehicles on the road. The laws vary from state to state.

About half the states bar districts from using the nonconforming vehicles in getting children to and from school, according to a survey conducted by the transportation directors' association.

The NTSB also urged states to require the use of child-safety restraints for all school bus passengers weighing less than 50 pounds, as recommended in federal highway-safety guidelines.

Finally, the panel said that if states continue to allow the use of vans, they should at least rescind exemptions from mandatory seat-belt use. Ms. Hopkins said that in all three of the accidents involving 15-passenger vans, seats were equipped with belts that were not being used by riders.

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Page 6

Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as Federal Panel Seeks Tighter Limits on Vans, Small Buses for School Use
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Web Resources
  • Read the abstract of the NSTB's special investigative report, "Nonconforming Buses." Includes the executive summary and conclusions of the board.
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