Passenger Vans: A Transportation Concern for Camps

On April 15, 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reissued a cautionary warning to users of fifteen-passenger vans. The agency notified consumers of an increased rollover risk under certain conditions. A similar warning was issued in May of 2001, when the NTSB warned motorists that fifteen-passenger vans with ten or more occupants are three times as likely to roll over in crashes than fifteen-passenger vans that are lightly loaded.

Despite the agency’s efforts last year to warn the public about the vehicles’ handling characteristics, accidents involving fifteen-passenger vans have continued. Most recently in April 2002, a fifteen-passenger van carrying day-care clients drifted off a Memphis interstate into a highway overpass killing four young passengers. While alleged drug usage by the driver appears to be an issue in this accident, public and media focus on the use of these large vans is intense.

States are translating the NTSB position on fifteen-passenger vans in a variety of ways. Some states have already outlawed the use of fifteen-passenger vans to pick up and drop off children. Because these vans have constituted the major transportation fleet for many camps, the decision-making process related to the need to potentially replace these vehicles is an important concern for camp directors. In the following round table discussion, three camp directors from various parts of the country answer questions about how their camps are facing this transportation dilemma and what they are doing or plan to do to address the issue and ensure the safety of their campers. The American Camping Association (ACA) suggests that all camp directors investigate their state regulations on transportation particularly for fifteen-passenger vans and contact their insurance brokers to determine insurance requirements.

States are beginning to prohibit by law the use of fifteen-passenger vans because of safety issues. How vital to the day-to-day running of your camp is this type of vehicle?

Don Gentle — Our program is very trip intensive and relies on these vans for transportation into wilderness access areas where a bus is not appropriate. We run two to five trips out per day using these vans. They are the perfect size when you are only sending ten to twelve campers, which fit most of the fifteen-person limits (including staff) imposed by National Forest areas.

Harold Gordon — For more than twenty years, we have considered these vans to be an essential component of our camp transportation program. Last summer our daily camp transportation included approximately fifty of these vans each day to provide door-to-door transportation for our campers and staff. We also used two to three of them a few days each week for small-group, off-site programs.

Steve Schainman — We don’t have any fifteen-passenger vans for transporting children because New York State does not permit them to be used to pick up or drop off children along “public highways;” i.e., public roads. They do not qualify as a school bus or type of vehicle that New York’s Department of Transportation inspectors are permitted to inspect. I also agree that they are not as safe as the ones which we use — the more strongly built yellow school bus vans that are complete with school bus signs, flashing school bus lights, and stop signs that swing out when the passenger door is opened — requiring motorists to stop, etc. I am referring to vehicles with adult capacities of eight to ten passengers or child capacities of sixteen to twenty. I know of a day camp that uses the fifteen-passenger vans for point-to-point or parking lot-to-parking lot transportation of campers. Many New York State resident camps use them similarly, for example, when one camp brings its basketball team to another camp for a game. A few day camps continue to use them illegally for door-to-door transportation, having gotten around the restriction by picking up or dropping off in driveways of campers’ homes.

Even if your state has not made the use of this vehicle illegal, do you plan to take or have you already taken any proactive steps to initiate alternative transportation for your campers?

Harold Gordon — Yes, we already took steps for this summer. Actually, we began thinking about this prior to last summer. Our initial thought was to convert to nineteen-passenger school buses, but still utilize our camp staff as drivers. This would have provided us with the safety of the school bus, while allowing us to continue to offer door-to-door transportation. Since California requires commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs)for the fifteen-passenger vans, we would have been able to continue the training that we had been doing and actually been able to use fewer vehicles and fewer camp drivers. That was a welcome thought. Following last summer we decided, however, to do a more complete analysis of the ways in which we could further enhance the safety of our campers and staff while in transit. We decided that a second major element after the vehicle was the driver. We have always used our camp staff as our camp drivers. Like most camps, our staff is mostly college age. To be a driver in addition to their “in camp” job, staff members have been required to have clean driving records, go through our classroom and behind the wheel training program, and pass the required written and driving tests for their commercial driver’s license. Over the many years, our staff has done a good job for us in this extremely important role. However, as we did our evaluation, we came to realize that for as good a job as they have done, they were still relatively young drivers with very little experience driving larger vehicles. There is no substitute for experience, and so it was with this in mind and with the knowledge that school buses provide a significantly higher degree of safety, that we have made the decision to contract out our entire bussing program to Atlantic Express Transportation Group.

Steve Schainman — This question doesn’t really apply to us, because our state has already taken action. We have been using a dozen mini-vans, capable of carrying seven passengers — children or adults — in addition to the driver. New York State’s DOT inspectors will inspect them, and we are permitted to use them for our door-to-door pickup. They qualify because they have capacities of less than eight passengers. Additionally, the DOT requires that the sliding door and frame have contacts that connect electrically to the dashboard, where a read light will flash if the door is even slightly ajar. Some models have this feature built in. The vans we use require this installation along with a 2½- to 3-inch diameter red bulb fixture mounted on the dashboard. We are also required to have a fire extinguisher, first-aid kit, and reflectors mounted typically behind the rear seat. Also, magnetic decals giving the camp’s corporate name plus decals designating the number given by the DOT to the vehicle must be displayed on the van’s exterior. The limited capacity of these vehicles makes them expensive to operate.

Don Gentle — North Carolina is on the edge of making these vans illegal, though nothing has happened yet. We have looked into using the fifteen-passenger “mini busses,” which some of the camps in the area use, at least partially. That will probably be our answer, but at a much greater expense than renting fifteen-passenger vans. It’s about $125-$175 more a month to rent these buses.

How has losing/will losing this type of transportation affect your camp?

Harold Gordon — There is a very significant cost differential between utilizing our own drivers with owned and leased vehicles versus contracting out for vehicles with drivers. To continue to offer door-to-door transportation utilizing the contracted services would have nearly tripled transportation costs. In order to make this change and not significantly increase these costs for our families, we made the decision to continue to offer local neighborhood transportation from over sixty different meeting points on sixteen different routes in place of door-to-door transportation. With the decision, we have been working hard to educate our parents about the importance of this decision and the value of trading convenience for significantly enhanced safety. Having said that, it is important to realize that for most of our families, their meeting point is within two to four minutes of their homes. Less than 5 percent of our camp families will have to travel more than five minutes to reach a bus stop.

Don Gentle — We’re not quite sure yet — the biggest problem would be orienting and training staff to use the new vehicles as well as trailers on Forest Service roads. It does not appear to me at this time that there would be many changes for our camp regarding pickup and delivery policies.

Steve Schainman — I don’t think that whatever happens with prohibiting this type of vehicle will have a great bearing on our camp or most other private camps. Not-for-profits that use them may encounter a hardship, especia1ly if they are located in areas where the other alternative school bus vans are all owned by school districts and hence are not available to be rented or leased for the summer to outside organizations — or, the private bus companies in their areas are unwilling to lease or rent them without their own drivers. In the greater New York Metropolitan area, there are still a number of bus companies who will lease school bus vans for the summer permitting the camps’ personnel to drive them. As compared to providing company drivers, this is by far the less expensive means of operation — saving from $1500-$2500 or more per vehicle in costs for the summer. Most private camps in Westchester and nearby Rockland counties no longer use counselor/drivers or others whom they hire to drive. The reasons include the difficulties in training drivers to get their CDLs, arranging for written and especially road tests, servicing buses or vans, providing substitute drivers, arranging for parking vehicles overnight, etc. As for pickup and delivery, there is no change contemplated for my camp or others that I know of. I love Harold’s new use of pickup points and full-size school buses, but I don’t think we could get away with it. There are some parkways around here that will not permit large buses to travel on them. Moreover, we in private camping in this area are still convinced that we could not get away with this compromise of services. Yet, I wonder. Our nursery school and kindergarten of 200 plus campers has most of their transportation provided by parents.

Will the loss of fifteen-passenger vans reduce or prevent out of camp trips?

Harold Gordon — No. We will be keeping some of the buses and some of the drivers with us each day in order to provide emergency evacuation transportation. We will also use these drivers to ferry campers to our off-site locations, which are just five to ten minutes from camp.

Steve Schainman — This isn’t a concern for us either. We have the buses and vans to provide out-of-camp trips.

Don Gentle — Tripping is a considerable part of our program. We will have to “roll with the changes” regarding this matter if it does become law in North Carolina.

How are you budgeting for replacing this type of transportation?

Don Gentle — We’ll probably have to go to mini-vans, but haven’t done the budgeting for this yet.

Harold Gordon — As I mentioned before, the cost to contract out full transportation and operate sixteen school bus routes is approximately the same as running fifty-six smaller routes on our own. However, because we want to have emergency transportation available during the day and plan to provide all sixty plus of our bus counselors with their own Nextel radios for emergency communication before and after buses arrive at meeting points, our costs may actually be 5 percent to 7 percent higher. We have chosen to absorb these costs as a cost of making this change.

Are you requiring additional training for your staff drivers beyond a CDL?

Steve Schainman — Aside from the twelve min-vans we use with our own drivers, all others are bus company employees. We have an outside driving school come in for a four-hour training session for our mini-van drivers. These drivers don’t require a CDL.

Don Gentle, Assistant Director
Camp High Rocks
Camp Location: Cedar Mountain, North Carolina (Brevard area)
Number of Campers: 130 boys per session
Camp Affiliation: Private, independent
Type of Camp: Traditional summer camp, with a high adventure focus
General Number of Staff : 65

Harold Gordon, Owner/Director
Camp Kinneret and Sunny Skies Day Camps
Camp Location: Los Angeles Area
Number of Campers: 300 per day average at each camp
Camp Affiliation: Association of Independent Camps (AIC)
Type of Camp: Day Camps
General Number of Staff : 60 to 65 senior staff at each camp

Steve Schainman, Director
Mohawk Day Camps
Camp Location: Westchester County, New York (north of New York City)
Number of Campers: 1,000 plus campers
Camp Affiliation: Private
Type of Camp: Traditional day camp serving children ages 3-12
General Number of Staf: 350 plus staff

Originally published in the 2002 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.