This past summer, three teenagers died when the tire on their church’s 15-passenger van blew, causing a rollover crash. It’s a tragic loss of life that potentially could have been avoided. This post discusses the safety hazards to your members and risk that 15-passenger vans could expose your organization to. It also discusses how to keep people safer.
Since 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been warning against the dangers of using 15-passenger vans. Most recently, the NHTSA issued another notice in June of 2018, alerting consumers of the ongoing problems related to use of these high occupancy vans. Among the many problems associated with this vehicle is the high center of gravity—each additional passenger increases the risk of rollover, instability in crosswinds, and a seating configuration that puts extra weight on the back-left tire and contributes to tire failure and loss of control of the vehicle by the driver. The NHTSA noted that 11% of the fatal 15-passenger rollover van crashes were attributed to tire failure. In addition, many occupants fail to buckle up in these vans, which adds to the loss of life when rollover accidents occur. The NHTSA found that 70% of the occupants killed in a 15-passenger crash from 2007-2016 were not buckled when the accident occurred. Research also revealed that of the 509 people who died in a 15-passenger van between 2007-2016, 41% were ejected from the vehicle.
Research, statistics, consumer advisory notices, and lawsuits have all contributed to a decrease in the number of deaths in 15-passenger van accidents. It’s not clear whether the decline in accidents and fatalities is due to safer vans, bad press, state laws prohibiting or minimizing the use of these vans for school-age children, state laws prohibiting the sale or lease of these vehicles for school-related activities, or simply the reduction in use of these vehicles due to the safety concerns and liability they create for an organization. Manufacturers have responded to the criticisms lodged against 15-passenger vans by modifying the van’s design to include stabilizer bars, rollover sensors, and crash sensors. Advocacy groups that want to see these vans taken off the road say that’s not enough. They argue that the flaws of the 15-passenger van are fundamental to the vehicle’s design and are nearly impossible to alter.
The best way to mitigate the liability and risks associated with the use of 15-passenger vans for your organization is just not to use them. There are other, safer options available to organizations, such as 15-passenger shuttles. Shuttle designs are safer because they have dual rear wheels that help to stabilize the vehicle and a steel roll cage to protect the passengers in the event of a rollover crash.
The NHTSA has issued safety recommendations for operating 15-passenger vans including:
- Use an experienced driver. The driver should be trained and have experience operating this kind of vehicle. A commercial driver’s license is ideal.
- Never overfill the van. A 15-passenger van should never carry more than 15 people. It's safer to carry fewer passengers.
- When the van is not full, require passengers to sit in front of the rear axle.
- Always require passengers to buckle up.
- Always follow state child occupant protection laws.
- Avoid using old or spare tires. Don’t ever use tires that are ten years old or older.
- Verify that tire tread and inflation are at adequate levels before driving, every time.
- Drivers should avoid distracted driving and not drive more than eight hours in a day.
- Drivers should always observe the speed limit, allow for extra time to brake, and avoid abrupt maneuvers.
- Cargo should always be placed in front of the rear axle. Avoid carrying cargo on the roof.
These tips would also be relevant for the shuttle or other vehicles.
While it is usually legal to use 15-passenger vans to transport people associated with your organization, it’s a good idea to take the time to carefully consider the risk these vans might bring to your organization. Consider alternative transportation options. Should your organization decide to continue using these vans, at the very least, you must follow the safety recommendations issued by the NHTSA. Even those may not protect your passengers from death or injury and your organization from legal liability. If your organization has questions about what your state law is regarding the use of 15-passenger vans, be sure to consult with legal counsel.