Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 19, 2009

New motor pool policy wrecks some field trip plans

Changes in the University’s policy on student use of University vehicles have left some professors scrambling to find qualified drivers for field trips this term and over the summer.

The new policy requires drivers to be at least 25 years old and to have had a valid driver’s license for four years before they may drive a University vehicle seating eight or more passengers.

That means professors who want to take larger groups of students on the road are faced with finding older drivers or renting additional smaller vehicles. The University’s policy allows students who are at least 21 and have had a license for two years to drive vehicles that seat up to seven passengers.

Eli Shorak, associate vice chancellor for business, said, “The University continually reviews policies regarding student safety.” He added that the changes to Pitt’s policy are based on best practices rather than a response to any incident involving Pitt’s motor pool vehicles.

Other schools have similar policies, Shorak said. Likewise, many commercial firms will not allow young drivers to rent large vehicles.

“The University felt strengthening the policies and criteria was in the best interest of student safety,” he said.

Although the policies are listed under guidelines for student use of University vehicles (available online at, the age restrictions also apply to staff, Shorak said.

The new policy also requires two approved drivers for trips longer than 250 miles and limits vehicles to no more than 10 hours on the road per day. Drivers must change every three hours and driving is prohibited between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The changes went into effect this term, with motor pool users being notified when they contacted Parking, Transportation and Services to reserve vehicles.

Shorak said the University was able to work out solutions with groups who had planned trips using Pitt vehicles then found out that their intended use would no longer be permitted. One option would be to take a minivan and a car instead of the 12-passenger van, Shorak said.

One group, which planned to travel during spring break in three 12-passenger vans, opted to hire a professional driver and shuttle bus instead. Shorak noted that Pitt has relationships with transportation firms such as Lenzner, which operates the University’s shuttles.

Charles E. Jones, professor of geology and planetary science, was one user who was surprised by the changes.

Jones, who regularly takes classes on field trips, said the policy was not in place during the fall term when he took students on a day trip. This term, Jones plans to use three of the University’s 12-passenger vans to take 29 students from his History of the Earth class to Altoona and Gettysburg later this month.

He discovered the new policy when he phoned the motor pool to confirm that he could use undergraduate drivers rather than teaching assistants for the trip. “It certainly was not very convenient to find out at the last minute,” he said, noting that timing the change to take effect over the summer might have been more convenient.

“Changing the age limit all of a sudden to 25 would mean [finding] a senior PhD-level student,” said Jones, whose class is mainly made up of traditional age juniors and sophomores.

The new requirement that calls for two drivers on longer trips also makes field trips more difficult, Jones said. “I could have people taking up space that could have been used for students,” he said, adding that unless volunteers were found, drivers might need to be paid, further increasing field trip costs, which are covered by the department.

For Jones, however, the big problem is the minimum age requirement for driving the larger vehicle. “That makes it that much more difficult to find people who are able to do it,” he said.

Jones has no problem with requiring drivers to have had a license for four years — a measure he felt would be sufficient and that would enable many 20-year-olds to qualify. “I feel a heavy responsibility for the safety of the students,” he said, adding that he chooses responsible students as drivers.

The University Honors College, which operates two field courses in Wyoming, also will be affected by the changes, said Edward McCord, director of programming and special projects.

McCord said he already had hired TAs for this summer’s trips. “They’re not 25; they’re 21 and 22,” he said.

McCord said the 12-passenger vans are ideal for the Honors College’s annual four-week summer field course in Yellowstone National Park, adding that the class size of 20 is dictated by the vehicles’ capacity. The vans each carry 10 students, a TA and a faculty member.

The 1,900-mile Wyoming trips require three days of driving, mostly on long straight roads across the prairies, McCord said.

“When the news first hit, I feared it would destroy the program,” he said, adding that he is “of two minds” about the policy changes: not pleased about the immediate inconvenience, but sympathetic to the University’s desire to reduce risk.

Such “supercautious thinking” is fed by simple odds. “If you take a huge university with lots of activity and multiply the numbers by many years, at some point something is going to happen,” he said.

Size can be a factor for someone not familiar with driving a large van, McCord noted, adding that he learned a good deal from a computer tutorial that at one time was required prior to renting a large University vehicle.

For this summer, the Honors College likely will shift to smaller vehicles in Yellowstone and will use adult drivers including McCord to travel to its field course at Pitt’s Allen L. Cook Spring Creek Preserve in Wyoming.

The new requirements also could affect professors’ choices when it comes to hiring TAs. Younger candidates may find themselves being passed over.

“I will definitely have to pick an older TA,” rather than simply selecting the best one, Smith said. Likewise, McCord said, “In future years we will figure out a way to hire older TAs,” adding that it likely won’t be difficult to entice someone over 25 to sign on for the Wyoming programs.

“We wanted to have older students involved anyway. We’ll benefit both post-grads and undergrads,” McCord said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply