What are the legal standards for vehicles used to transport students?
The federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act prohibits the sale to a school or the purchase by a school of a vehicle under the following circumstances:
1. The vehicle must be sold new;
2. The vehicle must have a capacity of greater than 10;
3. The vehicle must be used to transport pre-primary, primary or secondary students to and from school or school related activities; and
4. The vehicle must not meet federal school bus safety standards.
Why does the law only applies to new vehicles?
The reason is that when the school bus safety provision was added to the existing Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the only applicable vehicles covered by the original Act were those sold new. This made sense under the original Motor Vehicle Safety Act since it was not easy to mandate new safety standards retroactively. There is no question that as to the school bus safety features, this is a loophole in the federal law. However, in the course of investigating illegal van sales to schools, we found most involved sales of new vehicles.
Why does the law apply only to the seller and not the buyer?
Again, this is a feature of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which prohibits manufacturers and dealers from selling unsafe vehicles and does not make it illegal for a consumer to purchase such a vehicle. There is no question that this loophole has created an incentive by some schools to try to defeat the intent of the federal statute by trying to find a dealer willing to sell vans to schools. As the Strebler case indicated, however, the schools undertaking such a course of knowingly utilizing vehicles not meeting federal safety standards face potential liability under ordinary negligence theories unless their state specifically authorizes this use of such vehicles
How does the federal law affect states that allow school to use nonconforming vans?
Federal statute is the supreme law of the land and any sale by a dealer to a school is in violation of the federal statute, notwithstanding efforts by a state to make such transactions lawful. The primary effect of such statutes is to potentially defeat claims against schools utilizing these vehicles from grieving families in wrongful death cases or seriously injured children who have survived collisions in these unauthorized vehicles. States that don't comply can see a withholding of federal highway safety funds, similar to what happens when states don't enforce primary seat belt or drunk driving laws.
What is a pre-primary, primary, or secondary school?
The law has not been firmly established on this issue, but it is likely that any institution carrying the name "school", "academy", "kindergarten", or other similar name will probably be subject to the statute. Moreover, any program which has sequenced instruction or promotes itself as teaching certain basic skills will also likely be considered to be a school.
Does a statute include a school’s summer or camp programs?
Isn’t a van safer because it has seat belts while a school bus does not?
No. In fact, comparable sized small school buses are required to have seat belts because they weigh less than 10,000 pounds. School buses, as indicated above, have markedly superior per road mile safety records than all other vehicles, regardless of the seat belt issue. In fact, school buses are designed with a "compartmentalization" concept, which keeps children within and near their seats by placing the seats forward to them very close and with significant interior padding and other safety features.
What about day care centers, girl scout troops and programs for the elderly?
Congress, in its wisdom, created special protections on nonconforming vans especially for children on their way to and from school and transported by their school district. This law has not been extended to protect others, and many safety experts say that Congress should look to address this issue, particularly for children transported by day care centers.
Aren’t school buses significantly more expensive than vans?
The initial cost of a 15 seater school bus is approximately $8,000.00 to $9,000.00 greater than a comparable sized van. However, the school bus has a significantly longer road life and is less expensive to maintain. Recent calculations have determined that the per road mile cost of a 15 seater school bus is actually cheaper than a comparable sized van.
If parents can transport kids legally in these vans, why can’t schools?
Parents can transport kids on motorcycles to school or let them cross dangerous roads unsupervised, and no one would suggest schools can do this. Federal law expects higher levels of safety to be provided by school officials transporting school children to school or to school related activities.
Can school transportation help to enforce the law to protect child safety?
There are three options for school transportation personnel:
1. You can inform all school officials attempting to purchase these nonconforming vans that such a sale violates the Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the seller is breaking the law. Moreover, the purchaser of such a vehicle faces potential liability under the common law of negligence should a child be injured or die in a collision in a nonconforming van. You may want to go on record about such unlawful sales because schools and school districts may be very reluctant to engage in such sales if they know that there is, in writing, concerns raised about these vehicles that might be disclosed later should some tragic event occur.
2. Any violation known can be reported confidentially to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The contact person is Mr. Allen Kam in the Office of General Counsel, whose number is 202-366- 5248. Based upon recent new attention to this area by NHTSA, it is likely that any report will be promptly investigated and sanctions taken against the dealer who sells such a vehicle.
3. You may advise families who have children injured or killed in such vehicles of their potential legal rights to pursue damage claims against the parties who participated in the sale or purchase of nonconforming vans. In the final analysis, the threat of liability may be the most effective deterrent against the use of nonconforming vans to transport school children.
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