Administrators Face a Long and Winding Decision Process When Securing Safe and Affordable Ground Transportation
Within the past two years, the 15-passenger van has become to collegiate athletics what the 42-passenger propeller plane became to the commercial airline industry by the mid-1990s - a media-fueled transportation pariah.
That plane, a staple of shuttle flight, is still (safely) in use today, and it appears the van in question will remain on the road, too. Used by a vast majority of college athletic departments to transport non-revenue sports teams with relatively small numbers of participants, 15-passenger vans have recently endured a rash of well-publicized accidents jarring enough to lead some administrators to choose alternative modes of team transportation - or to at least weigh their travel options. From utilitarian vans to luxurious motor coaches, whether purchased outright or leased by various means, vehicle procurement is an area of athletic department logistics left entirely to individual schools' discretion - with nary an NCAA bylaw or guideline as compass.
Division III's Kenyon College, for one, more than tripled its athletic travel budget to $150,000 this year, leasing 36-seat buses and professional drivers at $500 per day for all road trips. The sweeping decision came after a 15-passenger van - rented for the school's swim team at a rate of 52 cents per mile - rolled off an icy road in January 2000, killing one student-athlete and seriously injuring 10 others. Prairie View A&M has taken a similar route, chartering buses for more than half its athletic trips in the wake of a rollover accident (occurring only weeks after the Kenyon episode) that killed a coach and four members of the school's track team, while leaving five additional student-athletes in the rented 15-passenger van seriously injured. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh still uses this model of van, despite seeing 10 members of a men's volleyball club team injured in a rollover accident in January, nearly one year to the day after 12 Titan varsity swimmers were hurt when the van they were occupying overturned. In an effort to prevent a tragic trifecta, UW-Oshkosh administrators have at least reigned in - from 300 miles to 100 miles - the travel distance for which a van can be secured through the campus fleet. All other road trips require motor coach rental.
If these and no fewer than six additional van crashes involving college sports teams since December 1999 weren't enough to steer athletics officials in the direction of travel plan review, in April the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a rare consumer advisory, deeming 15passenger vans three times more likely to roll over when carrying 10 or more passengers than when carrying lighter loads.
So, where do schools go from here? Already faced with shoestring budgets in many cases, athletic departments are well aware that safe travel comes with a price, but many are beginning to reprioritize the two. "I'm doing a lot of research on what other people are doing with regard to these decisions," says Mike Hagy, head of public safety at Midwestern State University. "I believe the trend is that people are starting to look at this from a safety standpoint and not just a dollars standpoint."
Unlike many schools several times its size, Midwestern State (enrollment 6,000) has invested substantially in a permanent, campus-wide fleet of vehicles. Only last year, MSU sank $110,000 into a 10-year-old motor coach that had already logged a half-million miles. The newest among the school's four 48-passenger buses acquired from Trailways (a 1970 model is approaching two million miles), the coach will spend much of its campus life shuttling the football team to away games and back. For remaining sports, there are six 15-passenger vans. But Hagy, who assumed fleet-management duties June 1, is considering phasing out the vans (all late-'90s Dodges and Chevrolets) in favor of vehicles that better suit the needs of the athletic department and university at large. In light of a new school safety policy that limits loads within 15-passenger vans to nine or fewer passengers, Hagy justified the recent purchase of a new 21-passenger bus, because with vans "we might have to take out three vehicles - two for the people and one to carry the cargo. That increases our risk of injury by three. Any one of these three could have vehicle problems or driver problems."
Such a bus costs $50,000 new, more than twice the price of a new 15-passenger van but less than half the price of MSU's used motor coach. Despite this middle-of-the-road figure, the 21-passenger bus closely mimics the luxurious characteristics of the larger coach. Unlike the utilitarian van with its bench seating, the bus features ample space for both players and luggage in one vehicle, as well as such amenities as large passenger windows and high-back seats. Hagy particularly likes a bus innovation that allows each passenger to adjust a lever and shift his or her seat laterally. "You can slide over about four inches from the guy sitting next to you," he says. "There's typically no room to walk up and down that middle aisle anyway, so now you keep players seated while giving these big guys some additional room."
Other options available on various coach models built to athletic department specifications may include extra space between seat rows, a rest room, a wet bar for cold drinks, multiple TV monitors, parcel racks with reading lights and adjustable air conditioning and heating outlets. It all depends on what a school wants and what its budget will allow. (The cost of a well-equipped coach can approach $150,000.) Says a representative of one major bus manufacturer: "We don't build our bus, we build the customer's bus."
Passenger restraint systems represent another option on coach-style buses, since federal law requires only that the driver's seat on such vehicles have a seat belt. Once ordered, however, belts on passenger seats must adhere to established installation and performance standards.
With or without belts, motor coaches represent one of the safest means of travel on America's highways. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, motor coaches account for less than 1 percent of all vehicles involved in fatal accidents, with fewer than 40 coaches involved in fatal accidents each year. Moreover, most fatalities in such accidents are to individuals other than those on the bus. From 1982 through 1997, a total of 109 motor coach occupants were killed on U.S. roadways. Within that span, at least 39,000 motorists in general lost their lives in any given year, with the number of overall traffic fatalities peaking at roughly 47,000 in 1988.
When numbers crunch like that, it's little wonder that accident-wary athletic administrators are increasingly opting to buy or lease large buses over relatively lightweight vans, even at greater expense. At the University of Tennessee-Martin, a significant portion of the baseball team's budget - $8,000 - was earmarked last season to rent motor coaches with professional drivers for all away trips. "It's worth it," UT-Martin coach Victor Cates told ESPN, a year removed from a March 2000 collision between a semi-tractor and the 15-passenger van he was driving with nine team members aboard - a wreck that left Cates and two players in critical condition. "It's a shame that it takes an accident like that for these things to be instituted."
Schools lease vans and buses for reasons not unlike those given by individual consumers who lease their cars - it puts them in new vehicles every few years without the hefty up-front costs. Some schools find price breaks by opening their travel contracts up to competitive bids each year, or even several times each year. "We use various bus lines, depending on their availability and their prices," says Amy Hackett, associate athletic director at the University of Utah. "We put out a bid request every year, but we go with different companies throughout the year because some bus companies, on a particular trip, may not offer the lowest price." Other schools, such as the University of Evansville, strike agreements with one provider that is also a financial supporter of the athletic program. "We have a sponsor locally that we use for most of our coach reservations," says Darien Westerfield, the Evansville athletic department's assistant for business and event management. "We have our fall season coming up and once our schedule is finalized as far as, for example, women's soccer, I will take that schedule and fax our motor coach needs to them. They will then get back to me with a price quote and the reservation schedule." A similar process takes place when Westerfield secures vans for athletic department use through a local Budget Car Rental outlet. As part of that agreement, Budget receives signage and other department-provided perks, Westerfield says.
Hackett says Utah would ultimately like to create an umbrella approach to the athletic department's ground travel needs. "We're trying to get our coaches to give us the information on the front end, so we can do a consolidated bid, but sometimes they don't do that," she says. "They may come in at different points of the year and give us their schedule, and if we've already put it out for some of our other teams, then we have to reissue and get prices from the different bus companies. Sometimes we can cover more than one team with one bid request; other times it's individual."
Regardless, athletic departments should test the lease market annually, according to Jon Oliver, associate athletic director for external operations and finance at Washington State University. "You want to make sure that you continually go back to the marketplace to verify what you already know," he says. "Plus, there are also state bidding requirements, in many cases, that force you to do that. It's no different than if you went to three or four different dealers and said, 'Here are the specs for our vans. What would the lease be?' That's all we do."
Leasing a coach on an as-needed basis may also make sense if it allows more flexibility in the campus fleet, according to Bill Sweet, captain of campus safety and transportation at Franklin Pierce College. "Let's say there are two teams going to the same place and they want four vans from us, but we have other requirements from other teams or other organizations. We talk to the athletic director and say, 'This is what we've got,' and he might combine two teams on a coach bus instead of using four vans."
Prices for individual trips made by leased coaches are often based on mileage, the number of drivers needed (a switch is required after one driver spends eight continuous hours on the road), and the amount of time each driver is tied up. "The driver gets paid whether the bus is moving or the bus is stopped," says Sweet, a former tour bus driver himself. "He gets paid from the time he leaves the terminal to the time he returns." But, to many, the added expense associated with a professional driver (or even setting up a second driver with a rental car and hotel room at a rendezvous point midway down the road) is worth the security that comes with the knowledge that individuals licensed to drive large passenger vehicles are behind the wheel. Because of the nature of its campus fleet, Midwestern State has on staff two mechanics who are also licensed bus drivers. If they are unavailable to make a trip, other qualified drivers can be hired from local bus companies or even the community fire department, Hagy says.
Still, some schools prefer not to deal with the hassle of staffing drivers or mechanics. "There's enough competition out there with bus companies that it's almost cost-prohibitive for us to own our own bus," says Oliver. "Plus, who's going to maintain it? Who's hiring and paying that driver? What's he or she doing when you're not traveling?"
At least some of the 15-passenger van's enduring popularity on campus stems from the frugality-driven reality that anybody carrying a standard operator's license can drive it. However, some would argue that not everyone is inherently able to handle one that's loaded to capacity. "I don't believe that there's a big problem with the 15-passenger van, if the person who's driving it is properly trained to drive that particular vehicle," says Hagy, who has instituted a campus-wide driver improvement program that will include a special section for those who operate university vans. "The analogy I use with our athletic director is this: The fact that I go out and get a pilot's license flying a Piper Cub doesn't mean you want me to fly your F-16 or Boeing 747. So the fact that someone's got a license to drive a Ford Taurus doesn't mean he's automatically qualified to jump in a 15-passenger van and drive it."
Other schools may insist that only team coaches take the wheel of vans. In the increasingly rare event that students are allowed to drive, a minimum age of 21 may be mandated. In other instances, drivers may be told to step down altogether, no matter who or where they are. Washington State, for example, will rent a bus and driver based on an ominous weather forecast. "In cases in which we believe there may be inclement weather, we have told coaches, 'Don't be afraid to call the business office and request a bus.' To us, that's an insurance policy," says Oliver, who adds that WSU will even send a bus and driver into a storm to retrieve teams traveling in vans. "We'd rather hire a professional bus to pick up that team and bring it back to campus. Obviously, there are financial considerations with that, but by and large we feel a lot more comfortable with that type of policy."
Comfort may be the key word in team travel these days. The shift toward motor coaches over 15-passenger vans means more onboard comfort for student-athletes. It also provides peace of mind for athletics administrators concerned about student-athlete safety. But purchasing or leasing the proper vehicles from reputable providers and at agreeable prices takes some homework, according to Oliver, and even then there are no guarantees that a given team won't encounter a few bumps along the road.
"The one thing you have to remember with all team travel is that you're going to have Murphy's Law operating," he says. "We try to do as much research up front as we can to make sure we're going with credible companies so that, first of all, we don't run into problems, and secondly, if we do, they have enough of a resource bank to fix the problem as soon as possible. It's not just based on price. We look to see who else a company has carried. We'll call those schools, in many cases, to see if they had any issues.
"If we're doing our jobs properly and if the bus company is doing its job properly, no one really notices. And that's the way it's supposed to be."