William L. Shenkenberg, Esq.
Davis & Kuelthau, S.C.
111 E. Kilboum, Suite 1400
Milwaukee, WI 53202-6613

Dear Mr. Shenkenberg:

This responds to your request for an opinion as to whether your client, a Wisconsin school district, may lease vans with a 12-passenger capacity for "various activities." The answer to your question is that NHTSA interprets the Federal definition of "school bus" to permit dealers to occasionally lease vans for a special school activity, but not to lease new vans on a long-term basis. Also, state law may or may not permit the lease.

Our statute at 49 U.S.C. 30112(a) requires any person selling or leasing a new vehicle to sell or lease a vehicle that meets all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards. Accordingly, persons selling or leasing a new "school bus" must sell or lease a vehicle that meets the safety standards applicable to school buses. Under 49 U.S.C. 30101, et seq., a "school bus" is any vehicle that is designed for carrying 11 or more persons and which is likely to be "used significantly" to transport students to or from school or related events. 49 U.S.C. 30125. A 12-passenger van that is likely to be significantly used to transport students is therefore a "school bus," and must be certified as meeting the safety standards applying to school buses.

If a new 12-passenger van ("bus") is leased for significant use as a school vehicle (e.g., leased on a long-term basis), the vehicle is a "school bus" and must meet the school bus standards. If the new van ("bus") is leased only on a one-time or very occasional basis, such use would not constitute "significant use" as a school vehicle. In the latter situation, the vehicle would not be a "school bus" and thus need not be certified to the school bus standards to be leased.

The onus of complying with NHTSA's school bus regulations is on persons manufacturing and selling or leasing new school buses. The purchaser or lessee (such as your client) is not subject to constraints under Federal law as to which vehicle it may use. However, states have the authority to regulate the use of vehicles, and Wisconsin law may affect the school district's use of vans. You may wish to contact the Wisconsin state director of pupil transportation to learn more about state requirements applicable to vehicles used as school buses.

In closing, school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in this country. NHTSA therefore strongly recommends that all school children be transported in buses that are certified as meeting the school bus safety standards.

I hope this information is helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact Dorothy Nakama of my staff at this address or by telephone at (202) 366-2992.

John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel