Large Van Student Transport – Legal Issues and Safety Considerations

Education, Property & Casualty, Risk

School districts looking to secure a large van for student transport should consider the associated legal issues and risk management concerns.

There seems to be confusion regarding a school district’s ability to own or use a vehicle, other than a school bus, that can transport more than nine passengers. This article will provide references to the legal issues and the concerns from a risk management perspective in an effort to clear up that confusion.

Legal Issues of Large Van Student Transport:

  • The first federal reference is National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 49 U.S.C. §30112(a)(2). This regulation indicates a school may not purchase, or lease a 15 passenger van if it will significantly be used for student transportation – unless the vehicle meets all of the safety requirements of a school bus. These safety guidelines are established by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), and includes, but is not limited to: yellow paint, reflective tape, stop-arm, flashing lights, etc. It is unlikely the school district will be able to find a 12- or 15-passenger van with these safety features.
  • In order to enforce this federal legislation, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) established penalties of dealerships selling, or leasing a 15-passenger vehicle to a school without the required safety features. The penalty is $10,000 and up to a maximum of $15,000,000 for multiple violations. This Act also defines a 15-passenger vehicle as “a vehicle that seats 10 to 14 passengers, not including the driver”.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WIDOT) defines a school bus as a motor vehicle which carries ten or more passengers for the purposes of transporting students to or from school, curricular, or extracurricular activities. WIDOT also recommends avoiding the use of vans able to hold eleven or more passengers based on federal safety guidelines. Wisconsin State Statute §121.555 further defines the alternative methods of transportation a school can utilize and specifically limits the vehicle size to nine or less passengers.

Safety Considerations around Large Van Student Transport:

  • These regulations have been developed to ensure student safety. According to WIDOT, crash data shows that larger vans are highly prone to roll over, especially when they are fully loaded. This higher center of gravity and the lower roof supports of a van, increase the potential for serious injury to the occupants of the vehicle in the event of a crash.  This also becomes a problem if the school district removes a row or two of seats to reduce to passenger count to ten. This creates a tendency to overload the rear of the vehicle with equipment and increases the potential for problems.
  • One of the primary goals for schools typically involves student safety. Does the school really want to ignore State and Federal guidelines indicating these vehicles should not be used for student transportation? Would the use of one of the vehicles impact the school district’s liability limitations provided by Wisconsin Statutes?  Instead of answering these questions, the school district can easily avoid this risk by using alternative transportation. This might include multiple mini-vans or 10-passenger vans to transport the students. The additional cost for extra vehicles and additional drivers would be worth the avoidance of the additional risk

Additional safety tips when using 10-passenger vans for student transport:

  • Make sure the vehicle is properly maintained.
  • Properly inflated tires are critical. Check the tire pressure and tire wear prior to each trip.
  • Use drivers that are familiar with the different handling issues created by larger vehicles.
    A large van handles much differently than a regular automobile.
  • Do not overload the vehicle. This can occur when transporting an athletic team and all of
    the necessary equipment. Overloading the vehicle can lead to a greater rollover tendency.


Another school utilizing a 12- or 15-passenger vehicle does not change the regulations and should not be a factor in your decision when evaluating the risk associated with these vehicles.

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