As winter progresses, harsh weather conditions make it even more critical for colleges and universities to feel confident that they are transporting students to and from university-related activities as safely as possible. This means insisting that passenger trip organizers identify and select the safest bus companies in the industry to transport their students.
Safe transportation for students is no longer the sole responsibility of the bus company. It is imperative that university administrators play an active role in ensuring safety, as well. If a bus transporting students were to be involved in an injury-causing or fatal accident, would the university administrator be able to demonstrate having exercised the highest duty of care in selecting a safer, higher-quality motor carrier? If not, the university could be at significant liability risk for neglecting this responsibility, as was proven with the Bluffton University (Ohio) tragedy in 2007.
The Bluffton baseball team was involved in a fatal accident near Atlanta, Ga. that year. After the Georgia Department of Transportation and the motor carrier insurer reached their coverage limits, victims brought suit against the university and its liability insurance carrier. Bluffton could not demonstrate having exercised appropriate “duty of care,” and in 2011, the Ohio State Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the university and resulted in a $17 million settlement paid by Bluffton and its liability insurance provider.
While in the past, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was relied upon as the source to identify safer motor carriers, it only has sufficient information to provide ratings on approximately 15 percent of the nearly 700,000 motor carriers on U.S. roadways. All too often, the few motor carriers that are inspected by the FMCSA only come to regulators’ attention after demonstrating continually poor on-road performance and/or an accident. FMCSA is simply not in a position to fully rid the industry of unsafe carriers, further necessitating university administrations’ active participation in ensuring safety.
University administrators can take a more active role in the implementation of higher transportation safety standards for their students in very easy and effective ways that will help to minimize potential accidents and limit their liability risk. They should work closely with their passenger trip organizers to make this a priority, beginning with the bus selection process.
There are typically multiple bus carriers in any given region, so university administrators should request that their passenger trip organizers perform due diligence in selecting one. Trip organizers should compare carriers on many different factors – not just on price. They can ask for referrals from other regional trip organizers, universities and schools that take similar student trips, and review the carriers’ safety records, reputation and performance. Independent safety rating organization, Transportation Safety Exchange (TSX), offers with subscription a list of operator companies that have been approved as safer motor carriers, based on its rigorous TSX-Comprehensive Review (TSX-CR) process, which is the most stringent and thorough review process in the industry.
A growing number of trip organizers are looking to a third-party safety rating service as a way to identify safer carriers. To date, nearly 100 bus companies have begun or completed the process to achieve TSX approval status. One TSX subscriber, GO Ground Options, along with its clients, is transitioning into using TSX-approved carriers exclusively. GO Ground Options has long-term arrangements to provide safe transportation for clients including the NCAA (46 Sports Championships), the Red Cross, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas System and Game Day Management (the company that organizes the Super Bowl, NCAA March Madness, etc.), among others.
Inquire About Carrier and Driver Safety
University administration and trip organizers are within their right to and absolutely should inquire into carriers’ safety policies, procedures and records. Bus companies should have clear, written policies and easy-to-implement procedures for the operation and maintenance of their fleets that are tracked and recorded by the company. Trip organizers may request vehicle maintenance and inspection records, and qualifications of maintenance personnel. Since most accidents happen due to driver error, it’s just as important to inquire about driver safety records, the company’s alcohol and drug testing system, policies on drivers’ hours of service, driver qualification files, accident registers and other such information. Individual driver performance should be a part of a carrier’s overall safety records and should be reviewed by trip organizers prior to taking a road trip.
Trip organizers should only select a carrier that has the necessary safety standards in place, and that is recording its performance on a regular basis. If a carrier cannot or will not produce these records, there is probably a reason why. No company is 100 percent perfect though either, so if performance records show perfection, the company may not be recording everything, and there could be reason for alarm.
Third-party validation such as the safety rating described above is also helpful in determining a carrier’s record, and can reduce the need for trip organizers to gather the safety information on their own from motorcoach companies. Trip organizers should inquire about such a rating. Inspections should include a risk assessment and evaluation of the carrier’s level of safety compliance and effectiveness of their safety management controls. If the carrier has been rated, the rating should be up to date.
Ensure That Legal Requirements Are Fulfilled
To further minimize university liability, it is critical for administrators and trip organizers to be certain that the selected bus carrier and transport vehicle are properly insured, and they should request that the carrier company produce proof of insurance. It is legally required that a carrier transporting more than 15 passengers have $5 million in insurance.
It is also legally required that any carrier crossing state lines be marked with the legal trade name of the carrier and have its USDOT number displayed on both sides of the vehicle.
Implement Safety on the Road
Once a safe bus carrier has been selected, it is the responsibility of the trip organizer and chaperones to assist the driver in maintaining continued safety throughout the journey. These parties should help to minimize driver distractions by requiring that students stay in their seats while the bus is in motion, avoid disruptive behavior and keep noise to a minimum. If the coach has seatbelts, as most of them do, trip organizers should request that they be used.
Trip organizers should not ask a driver to drive more hours in a row than is safe. The limit is 10 hours with proper rest between shifts. Drivers need to have the opportunity to sleep uninterrupted, and should be fully rested before starting to drive again.
Trip organizers are also obligated to use reasonable caution in questionable weather conditions. Good judgment should be used for the safety of the driver and passengers when determining whether to postpone or cancel a trip due to inclement weather.
The combination of these efforts toward due diligence on the part of university administrators and trip organizers will help to maximize the transportation safety provided to students, while minimizing the university’s liability. Implementing these guidelines into the planning of a student road trip will help to ensure a safer and responsible extracurricular university program.
Patrick Labriola is president of Transportation Safety Exchange (TSX), a safety rating organization that performs detailed investigations of motor carriers to ensure they are meeting the highest possible safety standard available. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.