Transporting young children to and from early childhood programs has become a routine part of the services that successful program directors offer. Whether taking children on exciting field trips or providing door-to-door pickup and drop-off, directors of early childhood programs know that transportation has become an integral part of the overall service parents and guardians need and expect. It is also one of the most dangerous things we do with our children. However, there are ways to help keep children safe while being transported.
Why Aren't Vans Safe?
Testing and accident records show that passenger vans are unsafe for transporting children.
- Many vans are highly unstable during extreme braking or maneuvering and tend to roll over on their sides or roofs.
- Vans have no safety cages built into their frames and very poor roof protection in the event of a rollover crash.
- Many of the vans that preschools and child-care providers have used were originally designed to carry cargo, not passengers. The sidewalls are thin and unprotected, making them more dangerous in crashes.
Banning the Van
The federal highway agency, state governments, and insurance companies recognize the safety hazards of vans.
- In 1997, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officially notified all dealers of new cars and trucks that it was illegal to sell or lease a new passenger van with a capacity of 10 or more to any organization that would use it to transport children.
- Some states have banned the use of vans for child-care centers, churches, schools, recreation departments, and related organizations. Other states are reexamining their regulations and may join this trend.
- Many insurance companies are reluctant to write coverage on passenger vans due to the high number of documented injuries, large amount of safety data, and high liability.
Small Buses Are Best
Small buses offer both safety and affordability.
- The new, smaller school bus called a Multifunction School Activity Bus (MPSAB) is by far the safest way to transport young children.
See sidebar for a description of MFSABs.
- Small buses must meet the federal government's stringent manufacturing safety standards for public school buses, known as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. These regulations dictate side and rollover strength, heavier bodies, safer fuel systems, and other safety features not found on vans.
- The initial cost of a small bus is lower than generally perceived, and, in fact, the per-mile operating costs for MFSABs are less than for vans.
- Most states do not require a commercial driver's license (CDL) for drivers of small buses, but check first with your local authorities when considering a bus purchase.
- Be sure to buy a nationally known product from a reputable dealer. Find out what types of buses are approved for your needs so you can make the most informed decision.
Child Safety Seats
A safe bus is important, but occupant restraint is also critical.
- Bus manufacturers offer a wide variety of safe-seating options, including traditional lap belts, 3-point and 4-point shoulder-and-lap combination belts, and even small seats that fold down out of the back of the main seats.
- Generally, children up to age 4 or weighing up to 40 pounds need to be secured in traditional car seats. Over that age and weight, simple, inexpensive booster seats and seat belts will ensure safety.
- Infants and toddlers should always ride in rear-facing car seats that are securely attached to a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) mechanism. LATCH is a system designed with connectors that fasten directly to anchors in the vehicle, making safety-seat installation easier than with seat belts. The LATCH system is now required on most child safety seats and recently manufactured vehicles.
- To ensure that you are properly securing car seats, check with a representative from the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of unintentional childhood injury. To find a SAFE KIDS Coalition in your area, visit www.safekids.org.
Your drivers are your front line for safety, so hire the best and make sure they carry out the practices you establish.
- Be extra careful when screening and hiring drivers. Do your drivers have good vision? Can they distinguish colors? Check with local authorities to be certain applicants have no driving violations.
- Do not assume your employees are safe drivers; train them well. Require them to complete CPR and first-aid training. And be sure drivers have radios or cell phones to communicate with you.
- Keep careful rosters of your riders and have drivers count them often, especially after parking the vehicle.
- Establish clear safety and conduct rules that drivers should communicate to children and enforce.
Parents' and guardians' highest concern is that their children are in safe, healthy environments. By implementing safe transportation practices-using proper child safety seats and seat belts, training and raising the qualifications of your drivers, and upgrading from a van to a bus as soon as possible-you will allay that concern. Your children will be safer, and your parents and customers will appreciate you even more.