The headmaster at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School decided several years ago that the remote private day and boarding school in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia would sell the six 15-passenger vans it owned and instead use small school buses for student activities.

The increasing number of van accidents and the potential liability helped the school make up its mind, Headmaster Greg Zeigler recalled. "We have gone completely away from 15-passenger vans," he said. "We could see from the lawsuits that the trend would be to get away from the vans to federally approved school buses."

But the school found it was paying for something it didn't need: the flashing lights and stop arm that are required by federal regulation to alert and stop traffic when students are being picked up and dropped off. So, in July 1999, Zeigler petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, urging it to create a special category of vehicle called a "school activity bus" -- without the traffic equipment and with a more comfortable seating configuration.

Last week, based on that petition, the agency did just that, proposing a new class of vehicle -- a multifunction school activity bus. It would retain all the safety features of a school bus, which include emergency exits, stronger roofs, brakes with short stopping distances, and the current high-backed seating arrangement.

The new class of vehicle (it wouldn't have to be yellow) is an alternative to 15-passenger vans, which NHTSA has warned twice in recent years are three times as likely to roll over when fully loaded as when they carry fewer than 10 passengers. The vans do not have special safety or licensing requirements.

School bus manufacturers, who have chafed at the competition from what they call "nonconforming vans" -- because they escape the safety rules that govern school buses -- were ready for the proposal. They already make smaller buses that seat as few as 10 passengers and will simply remove the traffic-control devices and adjust their prices -- by $500 to $2,000 depending on who is talking -- when the rule becomes final, probably next year.

"The school bus is designed and built for safety; the passenger van is not," said Donald Collins, president of Collins Industries Inc. in Hutchinson, Kan., which specializes in the manufacture of small buses.

This is a point that trade associations representing the school bus industry have tried for the past few years to make to federal regulators at NHTSA, which sets safety standards for vans, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which licenses and sets medical standards for bus operators.

"We have continually asked that they regulate -- or prohibit -- these vans from being used by students. Or we wanted them to extend commercial driver license requirements and alcohol testing to drivers," said Robin Leeds, regulatory liaison for the National School Transportation Association in Arlington.

Leeds said her group asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to extend its commercial driver's licensing requirements to 15-passenger vans. But in its latest pronouncement on Jan. 11, 2001, on who must have a commercial driver's license, the agency said the vehicle must carry more than 15 passengers before drivers have to take skills tests and face substance and alcohol testing.

Another FMCA rulemaking, which is soon to be issued in final form, is designed to beef up operating standards for vans that carry nine to 15 passengers (including the driver), but it applies only to commercial van services that carry paying passengers and travel more than 75 air miles per trip. The rule is aimed, in part, at vans that operate on the Mexican border carrying passengers to U.S. cities.

The agency said it determined that the bulk of fatal accidents in these vans occurred during trips over long distances. Drivers on such trips will have to meet special medical standards and undergo background checks, and their vehicles will have to be equipped for emergency exit. It considers the operation of other 15-passenger vans as something for state regulation.

"This vehicle has fallen through a black hole at NHTSA, which has not recognized this vehicle at all, and the FMCA," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer group that recently released a report condemning the vehicles as dangerous. It recommended the installation of doubled-up rear wheels for more stability.

The National Transportation Safety Board has urged NHTSA to do rollover tests on the vans and include them in its consumer ratings for rollover propensity. The agency said it will consider the recommendation. In the past, it has pointed out that the vans are not part of its rating system because they are considered buses. But because they aren't school buses, the 15-passenger vans don't have to meet a school bus's considerable safety requirements.

NHTSA prohibits dealers from selling 15-passenger vans to transport school children. But it has no control over how the vans are used after they are sold, or if used vans carry children. The agency levied fines against 17 dealers, totaling about $28,000, between August 1997 and February 2000 for deliberately selling vans to carry school children.

Twenty-two states allow some form of student transportation in 15-passenger vans.

Rabun Gap headmaster Zeigler looks forward to the new smaller school buses. In the meantime, he said, schools can buy smaller used school buses for activities for about the same cost as a new 15-passenger van. "If it's difficult for them to afford, my heart goes out to them," he said. "Look for a used Head Start program bus. You have a much stronger shell around the kids."