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Are our children safe? Transport issues are of concern.


It is a scenario many a church member has known — returning home after a school holiday, opening the accumulated newspapers and learning that a local teen or college student has been killed on the highway while on a church or school trip.
The deaths in 1999 of six teenage girls from the Green Lawn church, Lubbock, Texas, in a church bus accident has made churches and schools more aware of such dangers, leaders say.
While some churches and schools have comprehensive transportation safety plans in place, for many the choice and upkeep of vehicles and the selection and training of drivers is a haphazard process, at best.

David Fincher, president of Greater Atlanta, Ga., Christian Schools can quickly recount that 1,615-student school’s plan for transportation safety. Greater Atlanta owns 29 vehicles including 13 school buses and three mini-buses (the type used for airport shuttles).
“We stopped using or owning vans for student transportation in 1996,” Fincher said. “We charter larger coaches for extended trips.”
The use of 12-15 passenger vans to transport students is one of several hotly-contested concerns. The National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration has ruled that such vans cannot be sold new or used to schools for transportation of K-12 students without meeting the demanding safety requirements of school buses.
Transporting students in these vans is not illegal, but some churches and schools such as Fincher’s have stopped their use.
Such vans can be bought legally by churches for transporting school age children. However, if students are picked up at a school and transported to a church by a church, the NTHSA says the vehicles fall under the purchase restriction, according to the United Methodist Church’s Daily Christian Advocate.
Outlawing vans is only part of GACS’ regimen. All the school’s drivers undergo state bus safety training, whether they are required to have a chauffeur’s license or not. All are full-time employees of GACS.
If teachers or coaches drive students they also must undergo training. GACS tracks vehicle maintenance and employs a full-time certified mechanic and a driver-training director on staff.
However, GACS has opted not to install seat belts in its school buses. Fincher says the research on the safety effects of belts in school buses is mixed.
While GACS is concerned with secondary school safety, John E. Watson, director of insurance and risk management, Pepperdine University, Malibu, Calif., must address safety issues for the university’s 11 campuses worldwide.
Pepperdine’s transportation safety plan, Watson explains, stresses careful regulation of multi-passenger vehicles and drivers. When one of the university’s 20 vans or 10 buses is scheduled, a trained driver is assigned. All drivers must be university employees, and in accordance with California law, must have a chauffeur’s license for vehicles carrying 10 or more.
Pepperdine registers all drivers with the state department of motor vehicles which notifies the university of any moving traffic violations drivers commit. Watson says Pepperdine’s requirements for drivers are twice as strict as the state requires.
However, Pepperdine has opted to use 12-15 passenger vans. Watson believes NTHSA reports on the vans were more negative than research findings supported. He says much of the concern is about the danger of rollover, but “only when these vans were overloaded were they unstable and rolled.”Pepperdine’s vehicles are maintained and supervised by the university’s transit services department.
The 1,850-member Woodmont Hills church, Nashville, Tenn., has chosen a different route and gotten out of vehicle ownership altogether.
Doug Berny, youth and family minister, said, “When you consider purchase price, insurance, and keeping maintenance records that are point specific, plus the liability you take on your church, we think it it wiser to lease.” Woodmont Hills leases 12-15 passenger vans or charters buses for every trip, even within Nashville.
“When you lease, the leasing company must assume the liability for the vehicle, and you have new vehicles with the latest equipment all the way,” Purdy said.
Woodmont Hills’ drivers must be certified, undergo background checks and be checked through the state DMV. The church’s insurance carrier requires that a 15-minute safety video be seen by each driver before every trip.
So a large secondary school, a large university and a large congregation have examined safety issues and put plans in place, what about smaller, often over-taxed and understaffed institutions?
Size doesn’t have to be the determinant for safety as the 550-member Meadow-brook church, Jackson, Miss., confirms.
Youth minister Tom Perkins says his congregation owns a 30-passenger mini-bus and a 15-passenger van for the use primarily of his 60-member youth group.
A member of the congregation who is a mechanic services each vehicle from “bumper to bumper” before and after every out-of-town trip, and at least monthly, Perkins says.
Meadowbrook’s insurance carrier furnishes maintenance checklists which are completed regularly, even including who puts gas in the vehicles and where. Eight “hand-picked” drivers from the congregation rotate driving duties, he says.
Although Meadowbrook has been blessed with a “good safety record,” Perkins said, the church opted to have seat belts installed in both vehicles and enforces their use.
Certainly, all churches and schools should examine safety issues and put a plan in place.
As David Fincher of GACS says, “Too many of us hold our breath and want to believe it can’t happen to us. Both for safety, legal responsibility and to be stewards for our children, we must give attention to the issue.”

Key Chronicle Findings:

  • The safety and legality of 12 to 15-passenger vans for transporting K-12 students is hotly contested. Churches and schools should examine the issues carefully.
  • All factors concerning whether vehicles should be owned or leased should be examined.
  • All vehicles considered school buses must meet strict requirements regarding emergency exits, rollover protection and fuel system integrity among others.
  • School buses manufactured before April 1977 represent a substantial safety risk, according to Church Business magazine’s February 2000 article,“How Safe Is Your Transportation Program.”

Resources:

  • Church Business magazine: www.churchbusiness.com Search “bus safety” for numerous recent articles.
  • “If Schools Cannot Buy 15 Passenger Vans, Should Churches?” by Bill Barksdale, director, Mississippi Conference Youth Office, United Methodist Church, in the Daily Christian Advocate, www.msccym.org/chvans.htm
  • National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration: www.nhtsa.dot.gov , complete information regarding school bus safety requirements.

Filed under: National Staff Reports

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