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Van accidents focus attention on regulations

As the transportation deacon at our congregation for more than 20 years, I have, because of a transportation industry background, taken special notice of news accounts of bus accidents, especially when they involved church buses. In recent years, I have been appalled at the number of 15-passenger van accidents, usually involving rollovers, often with fatalities. So has the federal government.
I have also noticed as I have driven our church’s bus or vans to various brotherhood activities that very few church vehicles are marked with U.S. Department of Transportation numbers, required since 1995 for 16-passenger and larger busses. So has the federal government.
New laws were enacted last year bring all 15-passenger vans operated to transport passengers for compensation under the same regulations that buses for 16 or more passengers have been under since 1995. Churches can find themselves subject to the federal regulations.

Churches that operate commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) in interstate transportation are classified by federal law as Non-Business Private Motor Carriers of Passengers and are required to register with the Department of Transportation and operate according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs). Under certain circumstances, 15-passenger vans can be CMVs; 16-plus passenger buses are always CMV’s.

“Operate” is defined as owning, leasing, renting or borrowing such vehicles in order to transport passengers associated with their congregation or organization. Even though “not for profit,” the crossing of a state line or international border in a CMV constitutes interstate commerce. Some states adopt the FMCSRs as their state vehicle laws. If your state does, the same regulations can apply to your intrastate transportation. Check with your state authorities.

This information assumes that your church is engaged in the private transportation of your own respective groups. It is intended to help prevent you from inadvertently straying into the “for hire” category. (A word of warning: don’t rent or charter your church’s vehicles to groups other than those directly associated with the church on the title of the vehicle or you will be operating as a “for hire” carrier, and regulations for that classification are much more rigorous, requiring different registration, vehicle licensing, and much higher insurance limits, just to name a few.)

A 15-passenger van, with no trailer, if not operated for compensation, is not subject to federal regulation. When a van tows a trailer, its classification changes. When the van and/or trailer weight rating or actual weight exceeds 10,001 pounds., the FMCSR defines it as a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV).

A CMV has to meet lots of requirements found in the regulations. Here are a few:

• A CMV has to be equipped with specific safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, warning triangles and spare fuses.

• Trailers are required to have operative brakes on all axles exceeding a specific weight rating, and a “break away” device to engage and hold the trailer brakes for a defined time period in the event of separation. All van and trailer brakes are required to function, as are all signal and clearance lights on each vehicle.

• Passenger CMV’s are defined as buses which, if transporting passengers, must stop at railroad crossings.

• A 15-passenger van and trailer, while it is a CMV, does not require the driver to have a Commercial Driver’s License, medical card, or be drug tested. But your state might require more than just an automobile drivers license, such as a Chauffeurs License, to drive a CMV. Check with your state officials.

• Drivers of CMV’s in interstate or certain intrastate transportation, whether required to have a CDL or not, are required to operate their vehicle according to Federal Hours of Service regulations. A CMV driver is only allowed to drive a maximum of 10 hours within a 15 hour “on duty” period, which must be followed by 8 continuous hours of (non traveling) rest. This regulation impacts any co-drivers who are merely riding and waiting their turn to drive, possibly even sleeping during their non-driving time. They are still “on duty,” but in a “not driving” status. There are also limitations for “on duty” hours in seven or eight consecutive day periods that must be considered for long trips.

Vehicles subject to Hours of Service regulations, without a legal sleeper compartment, cannot make long, non-stop, cross-country trips that exceed the 15 “on duty” hours limit for the drivers. The 15-hour on duty clock runs concurrently for all the drivers on board, driving or not. You are free, of course, to drive or fly relief drivers ahead to an intermediate point along the route and let them drive the next segment, each one starting with a fresh 15-hour “on duty” clock. Just make sure they have had eight complete hours of (non-traveling) rest before they drive.

The regulatory environment will be a new experience for most churches. Congress mandated that the government write and enforce these regulations, so it would be imprudent to ignore them. If you are not familiar with them, you should either familiarize yourself with them or seek qualified assistance.

Churches that operate 16-passenger vans, mini buses, people movers, or motor coach-sized buses must conform to all the federal standards for commercial motor vehicles. Commercial drivers must have random drug tests.

Some states require medical cards. Churches must use caution in how members and especially their non-member guests help pay transportation costs, and churches should pay close attention to this when renting vans.

Elders, deacons, ministers, church staff, and members with responsibility over transportation are considered by the law to be the management of a motor carrier and are therefore accountable and subject to the fines and penalties.

Volunteer drivers must know all the applicable laws and regulations to be sure they help protect the church.

MIKE WATKINS, deacon for transportation at Whites Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., is a mechanical engineer.

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