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Agency:U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Program:Use of Non-School Buses for School Transportation

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), is authorized to issue and enforce Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) applicable to new motor vehicles. NHTSA's statute at 49 U.S.C. §30112(a) requires any person selling or leasing a new vehicle to sell or lease a vehicle that meets all applicable standards. Accordingly, dealers selling or leasing a new "school bus" must sell or lease a vehicle that meets the safety standards applicable to school buses.

NHTSA's statute defines a "school bus" as any vehicle that is designed for carrying a driver and more than 10 passengers and which, NHTSA decides, is likely to be "used significantly" to transport "preprimary, primary, and secondary" students to or from school or related events (which include school-sponsored field trips and athletic events). 49 U.S.C. §30125. This definition was enacted in 1974, as part of a comprehensive effort by Congress to increase school bus safety. By NHTSA's regulation, the capacity threshold for school buses corresponds to that of buses -- vehicles designed for carrying more than ten (10) persons. This means, for example, that NHTSA categorizes a 15-passenger van (designed for carrying more than 10 persons) as a "bus."

Most vehicles used to transport students fall within the definition of "school bus." More specifically, any new "bus" sold to a school district, or to a private school, is considered to be a "school bus" when sold for pupil transportation, and as such must comply with NHTSA's school bus safety standards. A dealer or distributor who sells a new bus that does not meet NHTSA's school bus standards is subject to penalties under the statute.

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On August 10, 2005, P.L. 109-59, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was enacted. Section 10309 states in part:

a school or school system may not purchase or lease a new 15-passenger van if it will be used significantly by, or on behalf of, the school or school system to transport preprimary, primary, or secondary school students to or from school or an event related to school, unless the 15-passenger van complies with the motor vehicle standards prescribed for school buses and multifunction school activity buses under this title.

For purposes of Section 10309, 15-passenger van is defined as: "a vehicle that seats 10 to 14 passengers, not including the driver". The civil penalty for a violation of Section 10309 is $10,000, with a maximum penalty of $15,000,000 for a related series of violations.

Some of the FMVSSs have additional requirements that apply to school buses, but do not apply to non-school buses. Also, some FMVSSs apply only to school buses. As an example of the former, additional exterior flashing lights and reflective tape are required to make these vehicles more visible and alert other motorists that school children may be in the roadway when a school bus is stopped. For the latter, school buses must be equipped with stop arm devices to reduce the instances where other motorists pass stopped school buses. Furthermore, school buses must provide crash protection in areas where pupils are seated.

Because NHTSA's laws generally apply only to manufacturers and dealers of new motor vehicles, NHTSA does not regulate a school's use of a bus to transport school children, even when the bus does not meet Federal school bus safety standards. Each State has the authority to set its own standards regarding the use of motor vehicles, including school buses. A school should contact State authorities to determine if it is legal to operate a non-school bus for school transportation.

A school district or private school can be sold a used bus, even when the bus could not be sold when new. This is because NHTSA's requirement to sell vehicles that meet applicable safety standards does not apply to the sale of a motor vehicle "after the first purchase of the vehicle ... in good faith other than for resale," i.e., to sales of used vehicles.

Nonetheless, if under your State law, it is legal to operate a non-school bus for school transportation, the school is advised to contact its attorney to determine its potential liability in the event a student is injured or killed in a crash involving use of a non-school bus.

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Last Modified: 05/07/2009