On the Road Again

As summer vacation begins winding down and the new school year looms on the horizon, school administrators will start planning extracurricular trips and other school-related activities for their students. Student safety must be a top priority as transportation is arranged for these trips, so it is crucial for schools to have confidence in the safety of their motor coach operators. How can school administrators reassure parents that their children will be transported to and from school activities as safely as possible?

One of the key ways for school administrators and passenger trip organizers to safeguard their students when arranging ground transportation is to ensure they select the safer motor coach companies in the industry. Transportation safety no longer falls solely on the motor coach company. This fact became clear when the Bluffton University (Ohio) baseball team was involved in a horrific fatal accident near Atlanta in 2007. After the Georgia Department of Transportation and the motor carrier insurer reached their coverage limits, victims brought suit against the university and its liability insurance carrier. Bluffton could not demonstrate having exercised appropriate “duty of care,” and because of an “omnibus clause” in the university’s insurance coverage, the Ohio State Supreme Court, in 2011, ruled against the university and its insurance carrier resulting in a $25-million settlement.

Other high-profile incidents involving students, such as the tragic bus accident that injured five third-graders while on a field trip in Poughkeepsie, a charter bus accident that injured 26 Texas students on their way to Orlando and the charter bus filled with chorus students that overturned during a trip back to Georgia from Florida, among numerous other cases, have raised the issue of transportation safety to the top of administrations’ list of priorities.

If a motorcoach transporting students were to be involved in an injury-causing or fatal accident, could the school administrator or trip planner prove they thoroughly exercised due diligence in selecting a safer, higher-quality motor carrier? If not, the school risks significant liability exposure for neglecting this responsibility.

There are ways for school administrators to play a proactive role in the implementation of higher transportation safety standards in very easy and effective ways that will help to minimize potential accidents and limit their liability risk. Many school districts publish approved lists of motor coach operators. All teachers and administrators should be directed to only use motor coach operators that are on the approved list for their field trips.

Research, Research, Research
As you can typically find a wide selection of motor coach operators in any given region, performing proper due diligence begins with the selection process. It is important to compare carriers on a number of different factors, not solely on the cost. There are several ways to do this, such as asking for referrals from other school administrators and trip planners; reviewing carriers’ safety records, reputation and performance; and requesting multiple customer references. A growing number of passenger trip organizers and organizations like the NCAA, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System, among others, are also looking to a third-party safety rating service as a way to identify safer carriers.

Be Assertive
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and request information about a carrier’s safety policies, procedures and records. Motor coach companies should have clear, written policies and easy-to-implement procedures for the operation and maintenance of their fleets. School administrators and trip organizers should also request vehicle maintenance and inspection records, as well as ask about the qualifications of maintenance personnel. Furthermore, as a majority of accidents occur due to driver error, it is equally important to inquire about driver safety records, the carrier company’s alcohol and drug testing policies, records on drivers’ hours of service, driver qualification files, accident registers and other such information.

Although choosing a safer carrier has been a challenge in the past, due to limited government regulations and stretched resources, a third-party rating system can be extremely beneficial in determining carriers’ records. School administrators and passenger trip organizers should inquire about such a rating and the related inspection requirements. Inspections should include a risk assessment and evaluation of the carrier’s level of safety compliance and effectiveness of their safety management controls. If the carrier has been rated, the rating should be up to date.

Don’t Forget the Legalities
To further minimize school liability, it is essential for administrators and trip organizers to ensure the selected motor coach carrier and transport vehicle are properly insured, and request that the carrier company produce proof of insurance. It is required that a motor coach operator have $5 million in insurance, and any vehicle involved in interstate commerce must be marked with the legal trade name of the motor carrier and have the USDOT number displayed on both sides of the vehicle.

Safety on the Road
Once a safe motor coach operator has been selected, it is the responsibility of the passenger trip organizer and chaperones to assist the driver in maintaining continued safety throughout the journey. One of the best ways to do this is to help minimize driver distractions by requiring that students stay in their seats while the motor coach is in motion, avoid disruptive behavior and keep noise levels low. Request that students wear seatbelts, if the motor coach is equipped with them.

Trip organizers should ensure the driver does not drive more than 10 hours with proper rest between shifts. Drivers need to have the opportunity to sleep uninterrupted, and should be fully rested before resuming the trip.

Trip organizers are also obligated to use reasonable caution in questionable weather conditions, using good judgment concerning the safety of the driver and students when determining whether to postpone or cancel a trip.

These due-diligence efforts on the part of school administrators will help to maximize transportation safety, while minimizing the school’s liability. Implementing these guidelines into the planning of student extracurricular trips and other school-related activities will help ensure a safer and more responsible school program. 

Patrick Labriola
is president of Transportation Safety Exchange (TSX), a safety rating organization that performs detailed investigations of motor carriers. He can be reached at [email protected].