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Church drivers must have commercial licenses

Church bus and van drivers, beware. You might soon be driving illegally.

Beginning April 1, church bus and van drivers who do not comply with new federal rules on commercial driver's licenses risk being slapped with big fines and maybe a stint in jail.

The law applies to unpaid volunteer drivers as well as those who are paid, said Robert Redmond, a transportation specialist with the Federal Highway Administration.

The rules are complicated. Here are some details:

Drivers transporting children to a private parochial school, kindergarten, nursery or day care facility in a vehicle designed to carry 11 or more people _ including the driver _ must have a commercial license, said Melody Miller, an administrator in Pinellas County with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Drivers carrying people to church, Sunday school or other destinations (other than children mentioned in the circumstances above) in a vehicle designed to carry 16 or more passengers _ including the driver _ also must have a commercial license, she said.

Several steps are necessary to get a license.

First, drivers have to pass a written exam of 50 general knowledge questions on being a commercial driver. The questions are based on the state Commercial Driver License Manual for Truck and Bus Drivers.

In addition, drivers must take a separate written test to obtain what is called a "passenger endorsement." That exam is made up of 20 questions focusing on passenger transport.

If the church vehicle in question has air brakes, the driver must also pass a separate written test of 25 questions on air brakes.

Finally, a driver may have to take a driving skill test.

A skill test is required if the driver hasn't operated the type of vehicle in question within the past two years; if he or she has been involved in an at-fault accident in the past two years; has had any kind of driver's license suspended, revoked or canceled within the past two years; or been convicted twice in the past two years of any "disqualification" offense, such as reckless driving, careless driving or speeding more than 15 miles per hour above the posted limit.

Drivers who want to take the written tests alone can call the nearest driver's license office. Group tests will be administered if there are 10 or more drivers assembled in one place, Mrs. Miller said.

She said to arrange for a group test, call Linda Marvin at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in St. Petersburg. The number is 893-2586.

Those requiring a driving test must call for an appointment. Call 871-7377 in Tampa, (904) 336-2111 in Gainesville or 534-7144 in Bartow in Polk County. There is no testing facility in Pinellas County.

There is no fee for taking either the written tests or the driving test. Those failing can retake the tests as many times as necessary, although a new appointment is necessary for the driving test.

Once a driver has passed all the necessary tests, the license will be issued for a $50 fee, plus $5 for the passenger endorsement.

Enforcement of the law can be at the state or federal level.

At the state level, a driver can be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor and face possible imprisonment of up to 60 days or a $500 fine for not having a valid license. The church could be liable for a second-degree misdemeanor and for the same penalty as the driver if it knows the driver lacks a license and allows him or her to drive.

At the federal level, the fine can be up to $2,500 for a civil offense and up to $5,000 and 90 days in prison for a criminal offense, Redmond said. The church could be liable for the same penalties.