INDIANAPOLIS (BP)—While police haven’t assigned blame for a bus accident involving an Indianapolis church en route from a summer youth camp, GuideStone Financial Resources recommends churches take specific safety steps before planning road trips.
“It’s not enough to address safety concerns on a case-by-case, trip-by-trip basis,” said Jim Welch, GuideStone’s director of property and casualty product development. “The church is responsible for putting protections in place for transportation for all ministries, on all trips. It requires leadership commitment, resources, time and consideration. Each is critical for success.”
Church-sponsored transportation safety is in the spotlight after a bus just one mile from its destination of Colonial Hills Baptist Church of Indianapolis crashed July 27 on an interstate exit ramp, slamming into a concrete barrier and rolling over, ejecting some of its 37 passengers.
A church volunteer, a youth pastor and his pregnant wife—along with their unborn child—were killed as others were hospitalized, including one teenager with critical injuries.
Indiana State Police told USA Today questions remained unanswered days after the tragedy.
“We are looking into seeing if (the church) has any records they’d be willing to offer up to show us,” USA Today quoted 1st Sgt. Tyler Utterback of the Indiana State Police. “It’s not a requirement.”
Keeping certain vehicle records and building safeguards around ministry transportation should be clear church priorities, Welch said, recommending precautions regardless of whether churches own or charter the vehicles.
“Before and after every trip, no matter how short, churches should inspect their vehicles,” Welch said. “Government data show that 70 percent of all van accidents happen within 25 miles of home. Dedicated teams—two or more qualified adults—should be responsible for these inspections, and churches should keep good records of these inspections.”
Make sure drivers are properly trained, screened and rested; make sure vehicles are properly inspected, maintained, operated and stored; and make sure church representatives and others involved have signed participation agreements and behave appropriately, Welch recommended.
“When it comes to drivers, handing the keys to the first available person is a big mistake. Drivers should be prescreened for clean driving and criminal records, have an established association with the church and have plenty of experience in general driving, as well as with the vehicle they’ll be handling,” he said.
“Also, be aware that if you own a charter bus or school bus, the driver must have a commercial driver’s license. You should order and review each driver’s motor vehicle record every year,” Welch said.
Participants and guardians of participants under age 18 should sign agreements specifying the activity, waiving the church’s liability for trip injuries and granting the church authority to obtain any necessary medical treatment for participants, Welch said.
Check safety records of each type of vehicle before use and use the vehicles only as intended, he said.
Follow “common-sense safety requirements,” he recommends, including:
• Set and enforce capacity requirements for vehicles.
• Require all occupants to wear seat belts at all times, if available.
• Require drivers to obey all speed limits and traffic laws, be at least 25 years old, be well-rested and have appropriate experience driving the particular vehicle they’ll drive for the church.
• Annually evaluate the health and fitness of drivers over the age of 65.
• Prohibit drivers from using cell phones at any time while on the road and limit other distractions, including noise, food, drink and electronics.
When chartering transportation, churches can be proactive by choosing only established, well-known companies with well-maintained equipment, Welch said.
Vet charter companies
“Check them out with the Better Business Bureau and ask for referrals if possible,” Welch said. “The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration establishes rules and regulations for motor carriers. Churches should familiarize themselves with these standards so they can use them to evaluate a specific carrier’s qualifications and behavior.
“Charter companies should be willing to share information about driver training and certification programs and safety requirements.”
When possible, observe pre- and post-trip vehicle inspections and ask to see inspection records.
“It’s best to have the church attorney carefully review the contract prior to signing,” Welch said. “Never sign an agreement that has wording making the church responsible for injuries sustained while riding in a vehicle driven by a charter operator.
“Keep in mind that the church could still be held liable for injuries that occur at the trip destination or as the result of improper planning,” Welch said. “Churches should discuss trips with their insurance agent to make sure they’re properly prepared and covered.”
Maintain inspections, registrations
Maintain government-required registrations and inspections, and regularly self-inspect vehicles, he said, covering such basics as tire condition and pressure, lights, engine condition, safety equipment, oil and gas levels and windshield wipers. Welch recommends stocking vehicles with safety supplies and equipment, including a fire extinguisher, a first-aid kit and emergency flares.
Insure church-owned vehicles with commercial auto policies, not modified personal policies, and if chartering, take out policies for “hired and non-owned” vehicles, Welch said.
“Additionally, if churches transport large numbers of people (10-plus), they should consider carrying excess or umbrella liability coverage just in case the unthinkable happens,” Welch said. “The limits on auto policies could quickly be exhausted in the event of a larger-scale accident.”
Welch recommends as a resource the risk management experts at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, GuideStone’s alliance partner, which offers free information.