Transporting Children in Vans: Do Laws Prohibit This for Camps

by Marge Scanlin and Jody Winter
March 2001

In the Spring of 1998 there was much discussion and concern around camps using vans to transport children. A combination of incidents and press coverage made it seem to camp directors that using large vans (12-21 passengers) was unsafe, if not illegal, and that camps should use school buses to transport children. In a thorough investigation, ACA discovered that this was not necessarily the case, and shared that information in a previous issue of CampLine (May 1998). Since nearly three years have passed, ACA has done some follow up research on the subject to keep everyone as updated as possible on the current laws.

The confusion started when a 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/lease of large passenger vans to schools for the purpose of transporting students . . . large vans, those which hold ten or more passengers, do not meet federal standards for school transportation." These reports are true, but an examination of the full story gives a more clear picture. Federal law prohibits the sale/lease of large passenger vans to schools 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 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. If vans were unsafe for the transportation of children, they would not be permitted to be sold/leased 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 Buses

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/leased 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, must be manufactured to separate safety standards consistent with their intended use.

The Federal Government Monitors the Manufacture and Initial Sale/Lease of School Buses

Federal law provides that NHTSA regulates the manufacture and sale/lease of all new vehicles. If a van is classified as a school bus and does not meet the federal school bus standards, NHTSA has the authority to levy fines on dealers who sell/lease the vans. 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 for vehicles classified as school buses and to pass state laws which complement these standards. For example, states may require 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. (Camps purchasing used school buses may need to repaint the bus and remove the lights and stop arm.) In some states, camps have been specifically exempted from the law requiring vans to be school-bus equipped.

Take the time to become familiar with your state’s laws on operating the larger vans or buses. You may start by checking into your state’s Web site using the link under Public Policy on ACA's Web site. States vary on which agency will be the appropriate contact for this information. For most states, it is either the Dept. of Transportation, the Dept. of Public Safety, or the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.

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 bus." 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 where the vehicle is used. Camps should be cautious about what they call their vehicles as well. Simply having the word "school" or "bus" printed on the exterior of the bus/van (in some states) may be enough to change how the state defines that particular vehicle. (The word "bus" may also lead to the requirement of a special driver’s license, as in California.)

Under federal law any motor vehicle designed to carry more than ten 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.) However, camps must be aware that states also have the right to add "camps" to the definition of "school." At the time of this printing, Pennsylvania is the only state ACA is aware of that has added "summer camp" to the definition. Camps in Pennsylvania need to pay close attention to this, while other camps should be aware of the possibility that their state laws may follow suit.

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 activity, 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 activity." Another example is outdoor education that you contract with the school district to provide. The interpretation of when regulations apply is clearly a state issue and will vary from state to state.

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

Are school buses safer than vans?
NHTSA recommends that all schools and organizations that transport children use buses built to the federal school bus structural standards or the equivalent. Vehicles meeting federal school bus regulations are the safest way to transport students, but 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/lease for that purpose.

School buses 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 crash-worthiness.

We do not know what the fatality rate of vans that are not school-bus equipped 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 buses.

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 confirmed company recognition that 12- and 15-passenger vans are more structurally-sound than passenger cars and mini-vans. One company indicated no loss history with vans that led that company to believe vans were an unsafe mode of transportation for campers.

ACA’s Recommendation to Camps

Camps looking to add to their transportation fleet are encouraged to investigate the feasibility of getting a vehicle built to the school bus safety standards. According to Charlie Hott of NHTSA (January 4, 2001), it could pay off to compare the cost of a school bus to a similarly sized large van (new or used), looking at purchase price as well as maintenance needs, possible insurance breaks, etc. Shopping around could bring the vehicle with the higher safety benefits into a reasonably affordable range. (Talk to your insurance provider about rate reductions for the vehicle with more safety features. Some companies base rates solely on number of passengers, but others are likely to provide discounts for the additional structural strength or those outfitted with extra security devices/alarms, etc. It pays to ask on a case by case basis!)

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 TR-13 – 16.)
  • Require that all passengers wear seat belts when the vehicle is so-equipped, and enforce established safety regulations. (See ACA Standards TR-10 and 11.)
  • 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 Standards TR-18 and TR-19.)
  • Be sure drivers are appropriately licensed and their driving records are clean (See ACA Standard TR-17.)
  • 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 passengers.

For information on NHTSA recommendations, visit

For some helpful information and sample policies/procedures for school buses (adaptable for vans), visit The site includes Recommended Procedures for School Bus Drivers at Railroad Crossings, Recommended Emergency Plans, Backing Up, and Loading/Unloading.

Feel free to call ACA with specific questions or concerns. (Call your local section or Marge Scanlin at the national office, 765-349-3312.)


Originally published in the 2001 Winter issue of The CampLine.