Who Needs Wiper Blades?

The road to away games is full of potholes. Taking the time to develop travel policies and rules can avert the potential disaster.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The Athletic Administrator's Scheduling Book, published by LRP Publications, in Horsham, Pa.

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1402/wiperblades.htm

Following a cross-country meet in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, a coach left a runner alone at the site to be picked up by his father. After waiting for an hour, the boy thought his father must have forgotten and he decided to run home.

After the boy left, the father arrived. The father called home. He called the school. He called the coach, then called the athletic director and the police. The father arrived home at the same time the police and his son arrived there. The school established a transportation policy the next day.

Your course of study during undergraduate days probably did not include athletic transportation. None of us selected a career in athletics to become a dispatcher of buses and vans. Yet, every athletic director I know considers this area to be a major and difficult risk management issue.

There are two key points in reducing liability during athletic team travel: deciding which modes of transportation will be acceptable and establishing a transportation policy. The following is a look at each.

Transport Options
There are several options when transporting athletes. Some good, some not so good. They are:

Commercial bus companies. I strongly recommend that you use a certified commercial contractor with a proven track record for all your teams' travel to away games. These are the professionals. This mode of moving athletes also helps you shift liability to the bus company.

Vans, driven by coaches or other school personnel. This is a reasonable second choice, and it is often used for smaller teams such as golf or tennis. The liability responsibility for the maintenance and skill of the driver is that of the school. The usual problems associated with this system are:

Vans tend to be less safe than buses.
The driver, often the coach, is no longer a supervisor.
The coach is rarely a professional driver.
The coach usually does not want this added responsibility.
The vehicle can suddenly become not available because of a field trip or an emergency.
This system tends to squeeze in a "few more bodies" than are permitted by state regulations.

Coaches' cars. Like with vans, this situation gives coaches an added layer of liability (and stress) that's best to avoid. It also leaves no supervision for the athletes in other cars.

Public transportation. At one time, this was a common way for city teams to travel to games and practice fields. This is not recommended because of the lack of supervision.

Parent/student drivers. Parents driving athletes and students driving students ranks at the very bottom of transportation safety. It detracts from team togetherness and poses all sorts of risks due to a lack of supervision of the athletes. This is not recommended.

Safety Decisions
The biggest question that arises when choosing transportation options is, "How do you weigh the risks vs. the costs?" This is something that each school district will need to decide for itself, with assistance from its insurance provider.

Although I suggest using buses over vans, there are ways to make vans less risky. The key point to remember is that vans are as safe as their maintenance. The big problem is that vans are used every day by various drivers with less than a caring attitude: "It's not my van!"

Consider this story I recently heard at a trial: As a wrestling coach was preparing to take kids to a tournament in the school van during the winter holidays he found four tires with various air pressures, trash in all areas, the third seat missing, and the oil at empty. When he started for a gas station, it began to snow and he found out that the wiper blades didn't work. Yet, he still drove the van to the tournament!

Vans must be checked on a regular basis. Coaches must be told not to drive a van if its maintenance is below par. Coaches must be told this frequently. It's better to cancel a game than risk an accident.

Often, the hardest decisions to make on choosing a mode of transportation are the special circumstances, such as when only a handful of athletes are participating or parents offer to drive. For example, if three athletes qualify for the state track and field meet, it's pretty outlandish to take a bus.

In this situation, you may want to ask the coach to drive the athletes or a parent to drive the athletes and the coach. However, it's imperative that you ask the parents of all the athletes who will be traveling to sign an informed consent form.

An informed consent form should be specific to each situation. For example, "I know and I give approval for my son/daughter to go with X on the date of X for the purpose of X." (The Xs must be properly filled in for each situation.) The form must be reviewed by the school's lawyer.

Written Policy
Deciding what modes of transportation will be acceptable in the school district is a huge first step in reducing liability. Just as important is establishing a transportation policy and putting it in writing. The policy should spell out the types of transportation the school district deems safe, school policies regarding travel, and codes of conduct for traveling athletes.

The policy is something on which you may need input from your school's principal or board of education. You can also ask coaches for suggestions on what special circumstances they feel need to be written down.

Some overall safety rules may include the following:

Provide the bus company with all emergency numbers. This includes both school and home numbers.

On your athletic participation informed consent forms, be sure to include something such as, "I permit my child to be transported to and from athletic events under the supervision of school personnel."

Designate a specific pick-up and drop-off location for all teams. Avoid, if possible, the general school population transportation site.

Make sure the coach has a cell phone, emergency numbers, and student emergency permission cards before leaving for any away contest. They can be placed in the first aid kit.

The emergency door should not be used when unloading.

All school rules apply during travel. Athletes must maintain a sense of appropriate decorum while on and leaving the bus

The coach should take roll call going to and coming from athletic contests.

A coach or administrator should be on the bus supervising whenever athletes are on it.

Upon returning to school, the coach should remain to supervise the players.

All athletes must travel by bus unless special permission is granted in writing (the form should require parental signatures and a hold harmless statement) prior to the trip. And if a parent requests that his or her child be dropped off somewhere, that parent must be at the site to meet the player at the time requested by the coach.

Place these policies in the coaches' handbook and student-athlete handbook and provide them as a handout to parents. Review and, if needed, update the policy annually.

The key to athletic transportation safety is the same as all athletic safety issues--planning and vigilance. Monkeying around on a school bus is something of an American pastime--let's stick it in the past.

Bus Rules

Using commercial transportation does not mean simply choosing the cheapest bus company available. It is important to do thorough research on any possible vendors:

Check the record of the company. This includes accident reports, vehicle maintenance plans, and experience of drivers.

Make sure the company has insurance.

Make sure the company is fully licensed.

Have your business manager and counsel review all contracts.

The company should require drivers to be trained and have passed a state examination.

Select a company that has experience moving athletic teams.

The company should require a coach or supervisor to be on the bus.