Dallas Independent School District and its transportation provider, Dallas County Schools, discontinued the use of private 12- and 15- passenger vans for student transportation beginning Monday, September 30, 2013. This came after a parent outcry following a local news investigation concerning the safety of these vehicles.
According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, fully loaded 15-passenger vans, such as the Ford E350 used by Dallas County Schools, have a significantly increased risk of rollovers leading to serious passenger injuries or even death. The NHTSA flatly warns that these vehicles are not to be used as school busses. Texas.
In fact, Texas, along with 29 other states, outlaws the use of passenger vans for the transportation of public school students. Under the Texas Education Code, only school buses are to be used to transport students on routes with more than 10 students, while passenger cars may be used for routes with fewer than 10 students. As the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services recommends that passenger vans not be used to transport students, because, “passenger vans are not required to be manufactured to the same federal motor vehicle safety standards as traditional yellow school buses.”
The issue of 12- and 15-passenger vans is only the latest transportation-related embarrassment faced by DISD and Dallas County Schools. Earlier this year, parents were outraged to learn that Dallas public school children were being picked up by private van services, cars, and even taxis hired by Dallas County Schools in lieu of traditional bus service.
Significantly, injuries arising from the operation or use of a motor vehicle are the only injuries for which a school district may be held liable under Texas law. While other state and local government agencies may be held liable when their employees negligently injure citizens through the use of other types of property or through hazardous conditions on their real property, the Texas Legislature has granted a special exemption to Texas school districts allowing them to enjoy sovereign immunity from such claims.
By using “independent contractors” to transport children to and from school, Texas school districts can attempt to insulate themselves from responsibility for the one area where they may still be held legally accountable for the safety of their students. Unfortunately, this also insulates those who drive our children to school from the supervision and oversight normally exercised over traditional bus drivers.