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Other Federal Agency Laws and Programs

Agency:U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Program:Safe Transportation for School Age Children

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 (FMVSS) 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 (including school-sponsored field trips and athletic events), (49 U.S.C. §30125). 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.

Many vehicles used to transport students fall within the definition of school bus. More specifically, any new bus sold to any entity, including a school district, or a private school, is considered to be a school bus when sold for the purpose of significant pupil transportation to school or school events, 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.

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, a 15-passenger van is defined as, “a vehicle that seats 10 to 14 passengers, not including the driver.”

School buses in the U.S. are required to meet more stringent safety standards than any other type of bus or motor vehicle. They are required to provide crash protection through closely spaced seats with high seat backs that are well padded and uniquely designed to absorb energy when a passenger impacts the seat during a crash. School buses are also required to meet unique roof and joint strength requirements and enhanced emergency egress requirements, and have overhead flashing lights and a stop arm for halting traffic when a school bus is loading and unloading students.

A multifunction school activity bus (MFSAB) is a type of school bus that is required to meet all FMVSS applicable to school buses except those requiring the installation of traffic control devices (flashing lights and stop arms). An MFSAB is a school bus whose purposes do not include transporting students to or from home or school bus stops. In other words, a person may sell an MFSAB to a purchaser for the purpose of transporting students to school or school events, if its purposes do not also include transporting students to or from home or school bus stops. For example, a school may properly be sold an MFSAB for the purpose of transporting students from school to an after school activity.

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, because school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in this country, NHTSA strongly recommends that all buses used to transport school children be certified as meeting NHTSA’s school bus safety standards. In addition, using buses that do not meet NHTSA’s school bus standards to transport students could result in liability in the event of a crash. If, under State law, it is legal to operate a non-school bus for school transportation, the school is advised to seek legal counsel to determine its potential liability in the event a student is injured or killed in a crash involving use of a non-school bus.

Further Information

  • List of State directors for pupil transportation
  • Office of the Chief Counsel, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: 202-366-2992

Last Updated: April 14, 2017

Last Modified: 04/17/2017