Transporting Children In Vans: Do laws prohibit this for camps?

Do laws prohibit this for camps?

by Marge Scanlin, ACA National Staff

A recent Dateline NBC program (April 1998) understandably alarmed many
parents and camp directors. The web site of MSNBC (
added to the concern with reports indicating "federal law prohibits
the sale of large passenger vans to schools for the purpose
of transporting students . . . large vans, those which hold 10 or more
passengers, do not meet federal standards for school transportation."
These reports are true, but an examination of the full story gives a clear
picture. Federal law prohibits the sale of large passenger vans to school
for the purpose of transporting students if the vans do not meet federal
standards for school bus manufacture. But this does not mean large vans
are unsafe, nor does it mean their use is prohibited.

In a recent discussion with Charlie Hott of the National Highway Transportation
Safety Administration (NHTSA) (April 28, 1998) NHTSA confirmed to the
American Camping Association that 12-21 passenger vans, as a class, meet
federal manufacturing standards that provide appropriate public safety
for children. In fact, Hott advises that vans have a better safety record
than passenger cars, and if vans were unsafe for the transportation of
children, they would not be permitted to be sold for that purpose. There
is no federal law that prohibits the transportation of children in vans
by camps. In fact, they (NHTSA) recognize that it is not practical to
transport all children in school buses.

Federal standards specify safety criteria for school

The federal government has established standards for the construction
of buses that are classified as school buses. If classified as
a school bus, that vehicle must be built to fulfill standards that
are not applicable to passenger vehicles or non-school buses. If a vehicle
is classified as a school bus, such requirements as stop-arms,
flashing yellow and red lights, joint strength, floor strength, crash-worthiness,
roll-over protection, and seat construction must be met whether the vehicle's
capacity is 12, 47, or 66. Therefore, any van (for instance, a 12 or 15
passenger van) that is sold for use as a school bus must be specifically
equipped to meet federal standards for school buses. "Vans"
(again such as 12 or 15 passenger vans) that are not classified for use
as a school bus are not required to be equipped to meet these federal
school bus standards but in fact, have to be manufactured to separate
safety standards consistent with their intended use.

The federal government monitors the manufacture and initial
sale of school buses

Federal law provides that NHTSA regulates the manufacture and sale of
all new vehicles. If classified as a school bus, NHTSA has the
authority to levy fines on dealers who sell vans that do not meet the
federal school bus standards. NHTSA cannot monitor the secondary
sale of vehicles, nor do they have the authority to monitor the use of
vehicles — only their first sale.

Each individual state monitors the use of vehicles
in its jurisdiction

States monitor vehicle use and have the authority to establish the rules
of the road and the use of certain vehicle types for specific purposes.
This authority allows states to add to the standard as to vehicles classified
as school buses and to pass state laws which complement these standards
such as requiring other vehicles to stop while children are loaded and
unloaded from vehicles classified as school buses. These state
laws are very specific and will be different from state to state. For
example, in some states only schools are permitted the use of safety equipment
such as stop arms and the use of yellow and red flashing lights. Camps
and other youth agencies utilizing vans or buses constructed and/or equipped
to meet the standards of school buses may be prohibited from using
those systems. In some states, camps have been specifically exempted from
the law requiring vans to be school bus equipped. (Check out state
laws on transportation at

Who establishes whether a van transporting children
is classified as a "school bus?"

The determination of whether a van used to transport children must meet
school bus standards is determined by whether a van is a "school
." Since both the federal and state governments have the authority
to define what is a " school bus," the prudent transportation
provider must consider not only federal law but also state law in the
state where the vehicle is used.

Under federal law any motor vehicle designed to carry more than 10 persons
is classified as a bus. A bus is classified as a school bus
if it is used to transport students to and from school or school
related activities
. Official interpretation letters from NHTSA specifically
indicate that "unless your program would be considered a ‘school
or school-related event,' your vehicles would not be considered
school buses' under federal law." (May 1991 letter from NHTSA
to Ms. Vel McCaslin.)

NHTSA further interprets (April 29, 1991 letter to Eric G. Hoffman, Esq.)
that "without violating any provision of federal law, a school may
use [any] vehicle to transport school children, even if the vehicle does
not comply with federal school bus regulations. This is so because
the individual states have authority over the activities of a user of
a school bus . . . You must look to state law."

NHTSA has further ruled (May 30, 1995 letter to Camp Berachah Christian
Retreat Center) that the federal bus regulations do not require the leasing
of complying school buses for camp programs not affiliated with
a school. However, if camp is considered by your state to be a school-related
, the requirements of the federal school bus standards
would most likely need to be met. Day camps operated in conjunction with
private schools may be an example that some states would consider a "school-related
." This is clearly a state issue and will vary from state
to state.

These interpretation letters can be found on the Internet at

Why would federal and state governments require
a different standard of care for school transportation than all youth

Education is a government mandate, and states provide public schooling
for those who do not choose private or home schooling. While mandating
education, the federal government has established the highest standard
for construction of school transportation vehicles. However, the federal
government and state governments also realize that it is not reasonable
to mandate that children always be transported in school buses.
That would be an impractical requirement for families, churches, youth
organizations, and camps.

While NHTSA says that vehicles meeting federal school bus regulations
are the safest way to transport students, this is not to say that non-school
bus transportation is unsafe. All vehicles must pass safety standards
established by the government. If vans were unsafe for transporting people,
the federal government would not permit their sale for that purpose.

Are school buses safer than vans?

NHTSA would tell you that properly equipped school buses are the safest
means of transporting children. They have the lowest fatality rate. However,
one must remember that the fatality statistics are based on those buses
being used as school buses. This means they have the protection
afforded by state laws of the use of stop arms, flashing lights, yellow
paint clearly identifying them as school buses, and the expectation
of the public that safety laws must be followed. These protections are
in addition to the manufacturing standards for strength, stability, and

We do not know what the fatality rate of vans that are not school-bus
would be if they were permitted to use flashing lights, stop
arms, and the force of law to require other drivers to stop while they
picked up or discharged children. Nor do we know the comparison of fatality
rates of buses equipped as school buses and non-school bus-equipped
. We must also remember that vans are equipped with seat belts
and most school buses are not.

What about insurance companies? Will they require
buses instead of vans?

ACA made contact with representatives from several insurance companies
that write policies for camps. All were familiar with the Dateline NBC
story and the issues around vans. None of these companies are assessing
additional liability for transporting in vans at this time. All confirmed
company recognition that 12 and 15 passenger vans are more structurally-sound
than passenger cars and mini-vans. (This position is similar to information
received from NHTSA.) One company indicated no loss history with vans
that led that company to believe vans were an unsafe mode of transportation
for campers.

As additional information becomes available on this topic, ACA will keep
you informed. Be sure to check state law regarding the use of passenger
vans that are not equipped as school buses for camp purposes. Feel free
to call ACA with specific questions or concerns. (Call your local
ACA section
or Marge Scanlin
at the national office at 765-349-3312.)


What should camps do?

Camps should continue to maintain full compliance with ACA standards
and with state laws applicable to transporting children. Specifically,
camps should:

  • Be sure all vehicles, whether buses, vans or cars, have been
    inspected and all safety equipment is fully operational. (See
    ACA Standards BT-14 and 15.)
  • Require that all passengers wear seat belts when the vehicle
    is so-equipped, and enforce established safety regulations. (See
    ACA Standard BT-9.)
  • Provide safety training for all drivers on loading, unloading
    and backing up. Require on-the-road driver training and evaluation
    in vehicles that will be driven. (See ACA Standard BT-17.)
  • Be sure drivers are appropriately licensed and their driving
    records are clean (See ACA Standard B-16.)
  • Be conversant about your state's laws concerning the use and
    monitoring of buses and vans for transporting children to and
    from camp.
  • Prepare statements to be used by office personnel concerning
    your transportation program. Be able to explain the law as described
    above, and the safety training you have in place for drivers and
Key Messages to Share with Parents about
Camp Transportation
  • Safety is our number one priority and we meet or exceed all
    state laws regarding the transporting of campers at Camp ___________.
  • As an accredited camp in the American Camping Association, our
    transportation practices have been reviewed by ACA standards personnel,
    and we meet or exceed ACA requirements for accreditation. ACA's
    review included a review of our transportation program.
  • Federal government statistics show that 12 and 15 passenger
    vans provide more safety than the family car.
  • All of our drivers are properly licensed, have participated
    in a camp-sponsored training program, and drive vehicles that
    meet state and federal requirements.


Originally published in the 1998 Spring issue
of The CampLine.