Schools and colleges that operate a minibus have a duty to take care of the passengers, the driver and the vehicle whilst it is under their control.
With many schools relying on the goodwill of teachers or volunteer drivers to transport children to events, it is very important to understand the rules around who can and can't get behind the wheel as this can have implications for your insurance cover.
The DVLA's rules state that if it is not for 'hire or reward' anyone with a licence held before 1 January 1997 can drive a minibus carrying up to 16 passengers.
For drivers with a licence gained after this date, there are further requirements. As well as being at least 21 and holding a licence for a minimum of two years, the minibus must weigh less than 3.5 tonnes and not be towing a trailer. Additionally, it must be used for social purposes by a non-commercial body and be driven on a voluntary basis.
This may seem fairly clear cut but issues can arise around some of the terminology. In particular there can be ambiguity around the terms 'non-commercial body', 'voluntary basis' and 'hire and reward'.
Hire and reward ambiguity
Although taking schoolchildren to a football match may seem far removed from running a commercial operation, where any payment is made, there's a risk it could be regarded as hire and reward. Payments don't necessarily have to be fares either. A charge for a day trip or a sub to the football team could be regarded as payment.
As an example take the case of Rout v Swallow Hotels. In this, courtesy coaches were provided to take guests to the train station. Although there was no separate payment, the appeal judges ruled that as the coaches were part of the hotel's amenities, they were operating on a hire and reward basis.
Steering clear of hire and reward is important. If an organisation is deemed to be operating on this basis it would need a full public service vehicle (PSV) operator's licence or a private hire vehicle licence. Drivers may also need a passenger carrying vehicle entitlement on their driving licence.
A simple solution
For some organisations there is a simple solution. A Section 19 permit is available to organisations that provide transport on a not-for-profit basis and gives an exemption to the rules around hire and reward.
Although the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) can help you find out if you can apply for a Section 19, some schools are likely to find they aren't eligible. For example a minibus may be regarded as an amenity included within the fees at a private school.
Additionally, while a section 19 will help some establishments sidestep the ambiguities of hire and reward, we would like to see greater clarity in the DVLA rules.
As the leading minibus insurer in the UK we are well aware of the time and effort many organisations put into understanding how the rules apply to them. Clear guidelines would remove any uncertainty around cover and enable us to enforce the rules more effectively with our clients.
With school minibuses helping to broaden the horizons of many kids today, keeping them on the roads and legal is essential.