Every few months, volunteer drivers from the First Assembly of God Church in Layton board two aging buses and drive members of the congregation to youth conferences and retreats as far away as Colorado. Church officials also plan to start sending the buses through local neighborhoods to pick up members every Sunday.
Like the families of the 27 children who died in a church bus crash and explosion in Carrolton, Ky., last May, members of the Layton church don't realize the dangers that may be inherent in their aging buses.For example, the buses lack gas tank barriers that can help prevent explosions, high-back padded seats that keep children from being catapulted during a quick stop and tougher specifications for joint construction. Those items were among safety standards mandated by the federal government for school buses built since 1977.
Private groups often can't afford newer buses and don't have the money to retrofit older ones to meet safety standards.
"It is something we are definitely well aware of and are taking precautions. But the adjustments are just not economically feasible," said Billy Jackson, administrator at First Assembly of God Church.
Unlike buses operated by public and private schools, including church-run schools, these privately owned buses are largely ignored by state law. All private and public school buses receive safety inspections three times a year, twice by Utah Highway Patrol officers, and usually have the maintenance services of a district bus shop. Buses owned by private groups have to be inspected only once a year, usually by a private garage.
The only Utah laws that are different for this type of bus than for cars concern the color of the bus - they may not be yellow - and the type of driver's license required.
"I think we have a double standard here. Public schools are providing considerably more safety features and training of drivers," said Kelvin Clayton, state director of pupil transportation. "There should be equal or the same protection that is given to public school students."
Sgt. Lynn McInelly, supervisor of the Highway Patrol's school bus inspection program, agreed.
"I think, personally, if they are in the business of hauling children, they should have as strict of rules and regulations as we could get. We should have stronger laws to help those children," McInelly said.
Some of the existing laws, however, aren't even enforced by government officials. The Deseret News informed Jackson that one of his church's buses was in violation of the private bus color law. Jackson said that the bus had been registered, inspected and used for driver's tests in Davis County. Not once did officials tell him the bus, still yellow, was in violation of the law, which carries a misdemeanor fine.
McInelly said that enforcement of that law has been largely left up to spot checks by the Highway Patrol but agreed that it might be a good idea to include color on a safety inspection checklist of buses.
Another part of the problem is where private groups get the substandard buses in the first place. No Utah law prohibits school districts or dealers from selling outdated buses.
Clayton said he doesn't believe it is the responsibility of the state to stop school districts from selling old buses. Ironically, the state takes most of the money made through resale and contributes it to buying new, safer buses.
Clayton said buyers should be required to know about the dangers of buses built before 1977.
"I think it would be nice to have a big stamp or sticker that says, `Warning! This bus is not state-of-art for safety. Beware!' " Clayton said.
Glenn Bryson, owner of a regional Bluebird bus dealership in Bountiful, said he wouldn't sell used buses to private groups. He does, however, market about a dozen used school buses from Utah, Idaho and Nevada each year to bus operators in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
"They don't even care if it runs. They usually drive them 30 mph around town with a small diesel engine. They fill them full of pigs, hogs, chickens and people," Bryson said.
The Layton church purchased its school buses from another church in Pocatello and a bus dealership in Portland. One was built in 1973 and one in 1976. Jackson said he likes the idea of the warning, which the dealer in Oregon did not give.
Clayton also supports stiffer requirements for drivers of privately owned buses, including how many hours of training drivers must have. Jackson sees such requirements as a burden to churches that use buses for only a few hours each week and on a couple of trips each year.
Three state agencies contacted do not have statistics on how many pre-1977 buses are operated by churches and other private groups. The Highway Patrol said 142 buses are operated by private schools, many of them church-related. Thirteen percent of those buses do not meet federal safety standards for buses. About one-third of public school buses do not meet the standards.