Valley school teams on road: safety vs. savings

To save money, most California high schools ask coaches, teachers or parents to drive students to games or other activities. But many say schools aren't doing enough to make sure those trips are safe.

Districts rarely provide training to help drivers become familiar with passenger vans, which are often used for school trips. And drivers are exempt from state bus driver regulations that require certification through the California Highway Patrol, physical exams and a higher class of license.

Officials say vans are the most cost-effective way to carry students to extracurricular activities. And schools, now more than ever, are seeking ways to stretch budget dollars.

"It has definitely been a trend statewide at least for the last 10 years, especially for smaller athletic teams, to travel in vans," said Roger Blake, associate executive director with the California Interscholastic Federation in Sacramento.

Valley coaches have been behind the wheel in several recent crashes.

In December, five Hoover High School basketball players were injured, two seriously, when assistant coach Michael McDonald made an unsafe turn near Los Banos, the California Highway Patrol said. Initial reports indicated McDonald may have fallen asleep, but the CHP found no witnesses. No citation will be issued, CHP officer Jesse Lopez said. The van and two others carrying other players were heading to Aptos for a tournament.

In 2007, a Dos Palos High wrestling coach was driving alone in a school van in Bakersfield when he rear-ended a taxi. He later pleaded no contest to DUI.

Trained drivers in school buses are safer choices for student transportation, said Kirk Hunter, director of the Southwest Transportation Agency, a joint powers authority that serves 13 rural Fresno County school districts.

"California school buses are 172 times safer than any passenger vehicle on the road," he said. "This is simply about economics."

Many teams aren't large enough to fill a bus, which can cost $25 an hour for the driver and about $1.50 a mile for fuel and vehicle wear and tear, Hunter said.

None of those costs are covered by state transportation reimbursements.

By contrast, renting a van for a day costs about $65 plus fuel, he said.

Fresno and Clovis Unified coaches do not receive special training before driving students in vans, district officials said.

Clovis Unified provides a fleet of eight-passenger vans but also rents vans as needed, district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said. The district keeps an eye on employees' driving records, she said.

Since the December crash, Fresno Unified now requires two licensed adults to be in a van in case the driver becomes tired or is unable to drive safely, said spokeswoman Susan Bedi.

It's unclear how many districts have training programs for coaches and teachers who drive students in vans, said Mike Rea, government relations chair for the California School Transportation Officers and the executive director for the West County Transportation Agency in Sonoma County.

Safety would improve if districts required teachers and coaches to take a short course about the types of issues to expect or dealing with students while driving a van, Rea said.

"Teaching somebody to use mirrors and the differences of a larger vehicle is important," he said. "It doesn't take a lot."

After questions arose in recent years about safety and deaths involving crashes of 15-passenger vans, California and other states enacted laws adding higher classification licenses for drivers of those vehicles.

But no state laws regulate drivers of smaller vans -- at least for now. Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, said he plans to research the issue and would consider introducing legislation next year to require driver training for coaches and parents.

For now, he said, he would like to see school districts enact training policies for van drivers.

"Anytime somebody is driving our children to or from schools or for different types of events, there should be some kind of training," said Perea, who is also the father of a 7-month-old.

San Diego County's Poway Unified provides a short orientation program for its school vans and does not use vans from rental agencies, said Tim Purvis, the district's director of transportation.

Poway's program gives drivers information about defensive driving, characteristics of the van and ways to handle student distractions, Purvis said.

Purvis also keeps a close eye on van drivers. Computer programs can detect the speed of the district's vans anywhere in the state, so he knows when drivers have exceeded local speed limits.

"Last year, I was reporting something weekly," he said. "Now, we have educated our staff and more times than not, now we are not seeing anything."

After three speeding incidents, a driver can lose school driving privileges, he said.

"It's been very effective," he said. "Like Big Brother is watching you."

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