NCAA sticks with GoGround inspections

INDIANAPOLIS — The National Collegiate Athletic Association will not be deterred from using a third party to certify motorcoach charter operators for championship travel.

Leaders of the country’s largest motorcoach operator associations met with NCAA travel administrators recently to discuss industry concerns about working with GoGround, which charges fees as a prerequisite for inspections and certifications for charters to national tournaments.

Last July, NCAA announced a five-year extension of its contract with the GoGround transportation management company. The GoGround program, STATS Certified (Safe Transport of Athletes, Teams and Students), has been controversial since it was instituted in 2011.

NCAA administers 90 championships in 24 sports for member colleges and universities. It coordinates and pays for team transportation to those playoffs. NCAA does not cover sports travel during conference seasons when each school makes charter arrangements independently.

At the February 18 meeting, NCAA officials “made it very clear that outside certification was their requirement and they do not see that they will remove that in the foreseeable future,” said Bronwyn Wilson, president of the International Motorcoach Group.

NCAA officials explained that their role in post-season travel arose after a 2007 accident involving a college team, when they learned that some motorcoach operators had not undergone U.S. Department of Transportation inspections for five or more years.     Before 2010, each school arranged for its own championship travel.

“They said the current minimum standards of FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) were not enough to satisfy their requirements and feel an obligation to their athletes and athletes’ parents to ensure higher levels of safety,” said Stacy Tetschner, president and CEO of the United Motorcoach Association. “They feel they meet that requirement with the STATS certification.”

The industry also was represented at the meeting by Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, and Tom Bazow, a Trailways executive board member and president of Excursion Trailways in Ft. Wayne, Ind.

NCAA was represented by Juanita Sheely, director of travel and insurance, and Melissa Piening, associate director for travel business administration.

Representing GoGround were CEO Bill Maulsby and Justin Custardo, operations director.

“The goal of this meeting was to share the exemplary safety record of the industry and show how much has changed since the initial conversations with the NCAA many years ago when they did not feel as confident about the safety record of the industry,” Tetschner said. “We shared facts and figures.”

Wilson said the industry wanted to “update and educate the NCAA on the improvement in safety and training that has occurred in the industry over recent years and highlight how the associations at national and state levels provide valuable and continual training and education to the motorcoach industry. Our message — particularly on improvements in safety, training and the current status of the industry — was well received and provided a more current insight than perhaps they were aware.”

She also stressed that UMA and ABA represent the voice of the industry on Capitol Hill.

The industry also asked for information about the NCAA’s perceived needs for evaluating charter carrier safety.

“We wanted to know exactly what the NCAA was looking for in their additional requirements for safety standards and certifications so we could compare and see if current statistics met their requirements,” Tetschner said. “They want something more like an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) oversight for airplane safety and they feel STATS provides that.”

Operator’s decision

Sheely said NCAA subsidizes an unspecified portion of STATS inspection costs to lower the operators’ expenses. She said the association understands that championship participation requires charter carriers to absorb extra costs but stated, “That is a decision an operator needs to make.”

And that was that.

“This was not a combative meeting,” Tetschner said. “It was clear that this is their decision and they felt they have a process that meets the needs of the transportation they need to coordinate. There is really not another level of discussion. Once we were thanked for our time, our coalition was not asked for further follow-up or information.”

Nonetheless, Wilson said, the industry offered “to continue to be a resource for the NCAA.”

The panel invited NCAA and GoGround to visit Washington for meetings with industry and FMCSA leaders to discuss other means of ensuring high levels of safety.

Under the NCAA contract extension, GoGround said it would charge operators a flat rate of $4,500 to maintain inspections of all vehicles based at one location.

GoGround calls STATS Certified “the highest safety protocol in the industry” that “provides collegiate athletics, and all professionals, charged with responsibility for Duty of Care with a standard that remains the highest available.”

GoGround inspections are conducted by Consolidated Safety Services of Fairfax, Va., which formerly conducted inspections for the U.S. Department of Defense bus program. That inspection program was paid for by the federal government and was generally popular with operators, who viewed military certification as a seal of approval and a marketing tool.

When the NCAA contract extension was announced last summer, Custardo said GoGround’s STATS process was more rigid than the Defense Department’s inspections and would prove that participating carriers practiced a higher duty of care.

“Duty of care” is the legal principle that an individual or organization is obligated to safeguard from harm others who are in their care. This is demonstrated by exercising the watchfulness, caution and prudence that would be used by a reasonable person in similar circumstances. Actions that do not meet this standard could be deemed negligent.

Fatal crash

NCAA assumed responsibility for championship travel after a motorcoach carrying a college baseball team crashed in Georgia on March 2, 2007. The National Transportation Safety Board reported that 33 members of the Bluffton University baseball team were traveling from Ohio to games in Florida in a coach operated by Executive Coach Travel of Ottawa, Ohio. Seven people were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the accident’s probable cause was the driver’s mistaking an exit ramp for a through-ramp continuing on I-75 due to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s failure to install adequate signage and pavement markings. Contributing to the severity was the lack of seatbelts on the motorcoach.

Executive Coach had undergone 17 inspections in the previous two years without receiving an out-of-service violation. FMCSA records indicated that its last compliance review had been conducted in 2001.

After GoGround and NCAA announced the continuation of their relationship through the 2021 athletics season, members of the Motorcoach Association of South Carolina voted to opt out of the program and formally oppose the plan.

South Carolina operators expressed concern that third-party inspections could spread through the industry in a July 14 letter to national and state industry associations.

The letter asked, “Where do the inspections, and presumably increased standards, end? Will larger operators insist on larger fees and more burdensome standards to foreclose small fleet operators from competing for this business? Will more of your clients be persuaded to buy into these inspection schemes until you are eventually forced out of business?”

The letter was signed by Bob Garrett, president of the association and of Sunshine Travel & Express in Lancaster. He noted that motorcoach operators already undergo routine state, federal and insurance company inspections. Unlike the practices of a decade ago, carriers now undergo mandatory USDOT compliance reviews at least every three years.

“The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is the only agency that can grant authority to passenger transportation companies to operate in interstate passenger transportation and the only agency that can withdraw that operating authority,” the South Carolina letter continued. “We do not need an independent marketing firm or third party to do another investigation that in reality creates a revenue source for GoGround.”

South Carolina asked other motorcoach associations “for your support in opposing yet another burdensome form of inspection and expense.” Some state associations adopted similar statements.

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