States and school districts that permit the use of passenger vans instead of traditional school buses to transport students are putting children at increased risk, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and school bus experts have warned.

“The biggest school-related safety risk for children in this country is the choice of transportation to and from school,” said Charles Gauthier of the School Bus Information Council (SBIC), which is funded by state governments and the school bus industry. “It’s false economy for states [and school districts] to cut corners in pupil transportation by allowing students to ride in 12- and 15-passenger vans.”

The groups’ warnings were prompted by recent crashes, including one that killed six South Carolina children last year. The children were riding in a full-size van that was hit by a tow truck in February 1999.

The van “crushed like a tin can,” Richard Gergel, attorney for four of the families that lost children in the crash, was quoted as saying by USA Today.

As the result of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigations of several such crashes, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and NTSB Chairman Jim Hall last December wrote a letter to the governors of each state asking them to enact state laws prohibiting the use of vans for school transportation.

Nineteen states currently allow vans for school transportation and 27 permit their use to transport students for school-related activities, such as field trips and sporting events, according to the SBIC.

Gauthier said several states have begun to phase out the use of passenger vans, but most have not. In fact, during the past two years, two states revised their laws to allow the use of vans for transporting school children.

NHTSA officials gave another reason for states to rethink their laws allowing passenger vans for student transportation: It’s illegal for dealers to sell or lease new vans for this purpose.

“Federal law prohibits dealers from selling or leasing a new motor vehicle with a capacity of more than 10 persons for the purpose of transporting students to and from school, or a school-related activity, unless the vehicle meets the rigorous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses,” Gauthier said.

School buses have additional safety features, such as padded, high-back seats designed to protect students who are thrown forward in a crash.

It’s difficult to modify a van to meet all the safety requirements, and a full-sized bus has the added and very significant safety advantage of its much larger size, Gauthier cautioned: “You can’t just paint a van yellow and call it a school bus. Parents need to know that a van offers their children much less protection in a crash.”

NTSB Chairman Hall was more direct: “These vans should not be used for the transportation of children,” he said.

Gauthier noted that manufacturers of passenger vans—such as DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors—have provided written notification to their dealers reminding them that federal law prohibits the sale or lease of these vehicles for school transportation, and that they are subject to penalties for violations.

Last October, for example, two dealers in Texas were fined a total of nearly $6,000.

“Some [states] require school buses for public school students, but permit the use of vans for private schools, day care centers, special education, Head Start and homeless students, and sporting events,” Gauthier said. But “all students deserve the superior protection afforded by the big yellow school bus, whether going to and from school or an extracurricular activity.”

Each year, the nation’s 440,000 school buses travel about 4.3 billion miles, transporting some 24 million children to and from school and school-related activities. An average of nine school-age children die each year as occupants of school buses, but most of these fatalities involved catastrophic crash circumstances.

In contrast, more than 600 school-age children are killed each year in passenger cars, light trucks, and vans during normal school transportation hours, Gauthier said.

For details on which states do (and do not) allow van use by schools, see chart at right. n

Links:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 400 7th St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20590; http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

School Bus Information Council, phone (888) 367-7242, web http://www.schoolbusinfo.org.

National Transportation Safety Board, 490 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, D.C. 20594; phone (202) 314-6000; web http://www.ntsb.gov.