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Why are school buses exempt from so many important federal laws?

June 9, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s puzzling position on school bus safety, despite carrying our most precious cargo – our children


Why are school buses exempt from federal safety rules?

If children are our “most precious cargo,” shouldn’t mandatory safety regulations that apply to other commercial vehicles like 18-wheelers also apply to school buses?

I’d wager most people would say yes. If so, then why are school buses – which transport our children to and from elementary schools every day across America – exempt from so many of critical safety regulations created and enforced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that are meant to protect the public?

I’ve been an injury attorney for over 20 years, and have spent the majority of my legal practice litigating serious truck and bus accidents, both in Michigan and in other states. And I’ve never been able to come up with any reason for why this exemption exists.

Neither has the FMCSA.

Under existing FMCSA rules, there are many safety regulations that apply to bus drivers, truck drivers and drivers of all commercial motor vehicles.

However, the safety regulations that are meant to protect the public are inexplicably scaled back when it comes to school bus drivers. For example, the only safety regulations that apply to the school bus drivers who are driving our children back and forth to school are the following:

  • School bus drivers must have a valid commercial driver’s license (CDL). (49 CFR Part 383)
  • School bus drivers must comply with the FMCSA’s drug and alcohol testing requirements. (49 CFR Part 382)

To learn more, please check out Michigan Auto Law’s blog post, “What is the law for school bus accidents?”

Except for a couple of limited exceptions, such as when a school bus provides “for-hire” transportation on an out-of-state field trip, those are the only two FMCSA safety regulations that apply to people whom we’ve entrusted to safely transport our “most precious cargo.”

If there’s a reasonable explanation for this, I haven’t heard it yet. And, the FMCSA hasn’t offered one up.

School bus accidents involving children, our ‘most precious cargo’

At a “School Bus Summit” on December 2, 2013, then FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said the following:

“We at FMCSA share a deep commitment to high safety standards for school bus drivers who keep our most precious cargo – our children – safe as they travel to and from school.”

Surprisingly, she shortly thereafter made the following, seemingly contradictory statements:

“Many people are surprised to learn that most school bus drivers are ONLY subject to commercial driver’s license requirements and drug and alcohol testing requirements; that’s because all transportation of students from home-to-school and school-to-home is exempt from our other safety rules.

*    *    *

“School bus operations conducted by the school districts are exempt from most FMCSA regulations because transportation performed by state and local government entities are statutorily exempt from FMCSA safety rules concerning driver qualifications, hours-of-service and vehicle maintenance rules. This exemption applies even for the interstate operation of the school buses by the school district.”

School buses are largely ‘Exempt from FMCSA safety rules’

As an attorney, I’ve litigated school bus accidents involving children. They’re incredibly difficult and tragic cases for everyone involved.

But I also see how insurance company defense lawyers for the school bus drivers defend these cases. They always start with the argument that the rules don’t apply here.

I fail to understand, not just as an attorney but also as a father, why the school bus drivers – the people whom we entrust the safety of our children to  –  are exempt from many of the same federal safety regulations that we think are important enough to apply to commercial bus and truck drivers transporting commercial goods; lifeless, inanimate products. Why do the goods that stock the shelves of our local grocery stores and shopping malls have more protection under the law than our children?

Federal laws that school bus drivers who injure or kill children are exempt from

Here are some of the FMCSA safety regulations that school bus drivers are exempt from:

  • Driver qualification (including physical qualification and medical certification) regulations.
  • Hours-of-service regulations.
  • Vehicle maintenance and repair rules.
  • Bus inspection program requirements.
  • Vehicle operation regulations.
  • Insurance and registration regulations.

I’ve never understood why these exemptions exist for school bus drivers. And, as an injury attorney, as a safety advocate and a father, I likely never will.

For a more comprehensive overview of the Michigan bus accident law, click here.

Related info:

School bus safety questions after seat belt crash test

School bus safety tips for your kids

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