Article summary.Many churches own 15-passenger vans, and most use them exclusively to transport children and adults on church-approved trips. Few church leaders are aware that these vans are designed to transport cargo, not people, and that they lack the many safety features required of school buses. The safety of these vans was called into question last year in a safety advisory issued by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). This advisory warned that the “rollover” rate of 15-passenger vans increases nearly seven times when they are driven with more than 15 occupants. The rollover rate is three times greater for 15-passenger vans with 10 or more occupants than for vans with less than 10 occupants. The NHTSA recently reissued this safety advisory, and has released a new pamphlet describing the risks of using 15-passenger vans. It also has made specific recommendations. This article will review the legal risks associated with the use of 15-passenger vans by churches, and address ways to manage those risks. It also will address other legal issues associated with the use of church vans.
You don’t have to drive very far before encountering a large (15-passenger) van. The federal government estimates that there are 500,000 of them in use. They are everywhere, and the reason is simple—they are relatively cheap and they can carry a lot of people. Many churches own one or more of these vans, and use them for multiple purposes including the transportation of minors to local or out-of-town church activities or the transportation of adults to church services. Some churches use 15-passenger vans to provide transportation to children who attend a church-operated preschool or “after school” program.
The use of 15-passenger vans by churches raises a number of important legal concerns that church leaders must carefully consider. This article will address three of those concerns:
(1) the relevance of the recent NHTSA safety advisory that documents the dramatically increased rollover risk associated with fully occupied 15-passenger vans
(2) the possible application of federal and state “school bus” regulations to the use of 15-passenger vans by churches
(3) interstate trips
1. NHTSA Consumer Advisory Documents Rollover Risk
“The summer of 2001 saw several tragic rollover crashes involving religious groups on trips.” NHTSA Consumer Advisory, April 15, 2002.
“Every time I see one I just say a prayer for the people I see on those vehicles.” A mother of a child who was killed in a church van rollover commenting on her feelings whenever she sees a 15-passenger church van.
Key point. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a rare “consumer advisory” in 2001 that documents the rollover risk of 15-passenger vans. The advisory concludes that a 15-passenger van with more than 15 occupants has a rollover risk nearly seven times greater than a lightly loaded van (fewer than 5 occupants) in a single vehicle accident. The rollover risk is nearly three times greater with 10-15 occupants than with less than 5. The NHTSA reissued this advisory in April of 2002, in part because of “several tragic rollover crashes involving religious groups on trips” during the summer of 2001. Churches that continue to use 15-passenger vans to transport people are assuming an increased risk of liability unless they take specific steps to reduce the risk. If a court concludes that a church’s use of a 15-passenger van amounts to gross negligence, then the church may be assessed punitive damages (which are not covered under its general liability insurance policy) and the members of the church board may be personally liable.
Many 15-passenger church vans carrying passengers have been involved in horrific accidents resulting in death or serious injury to occupants. Consider the following examples.
Example. A 15-passenger church van taking children home following an “after school” program at a South Carolina church was struck by a truck. Six children were killed.
Example. A 15-passenger van carrying members of a Colorado church’s youth group rolled over, killing five teenage occupants.
Example. A 15-passenger church van carrying 11 teenage members of a Georgia church youth group rolled over, ejecting 10 of the passengers and killing three of them. The one teenager who was not ejected survived the accident. He was the only member of the youth group who was wearing a seatbelt, even though seatbelts were available for each passenger.
Example. A 15-passenger van loaded with 14 members of a Montana church school’s track team crashed into a tree, killing a 16-year-old occupant. The driver had driven off the road in snowy conditions, and in an attempt to drive back onto the highway lost control and ran into a tree.
Example. A South Carolina church sent several of its children to a Bible retreat in a 15-passenger van. The van rolled over, injuring several children. The mother of one of the children spent the night with him in a hospital emergency room, holding his hand while she spoke to him and prayed. The next morning a doctor informed her, “Your son is brain dead. There is nothing more that we can do.”
Example. A 15-passenger van carrying 12 women from a Texas church on a shopping trip rolled over, killing four occupants. One of the victims was the driver, who was one of the women going on the shopping trip. One of the survivors later said, “The only thing I remember was the driver trying to control it but to me it seemed like it had a mind of its own.”
Example. An Arkansas pastor was killed when he was ejected from a 15-passenger van that flipped over.
Example. A 17-year-old was injured severely when a church van in which he was riding overturned. Among other things, his back was broken in two places requiring two 20-inch steel rods to be permanently inserted in his back. He could walk with difficulty, was incontinent, and could not bend, sit, or stand for extended periods of time. Not only was the victim allowed to sue the church, but so were his parents. The court ruled that the church was liable for the parents’ “loss of consortium” since the child had suffered “a severe, permanent and disabling injury that substantially interferes with the child’s capacity to interact with his parents in a normally gratifying way.”
(1) why are 15-passenger vans dangerous?
Why are 15-passenger vans so dangerous? For many reasons, including the following:
• They are designed to carry cargo, not people, and so they do not comply with many of the basic safety requirements that apply to passenger cars or the stricter federal requirements that apply to school buses. For example, 15-passenger vans do not have flashing lights or “stop arms” that are required for school buses, and they have fewer emergency exits (the back door is blocked by the back seat in many vans).
• They become top-heavy and prone to rollovers when fully loaded or occupied.
• Most drivers do not have a commercial drivers license, and have received no formal training on the use of such vehicles.
• The side windows of most 15-passenger vans are made of tempered, not laminated, glass, Tempered glass is much cheaper, and since 15-passenger vans were designed to carry cargo rather than people, the vehicle manufacturers have tended to use tempered glass for side windows. The problem with tempered glass is that it is far less likely to keep occupants from being ejected in an accident than laminated glass which contains a middle layer of plastic.
• The risk of rollover increases sharply when drivers make sudden maneuvers. This risk is quite common, since there are many conditions that may cause a driver to swerve suddenly, including something falling off a truck in front of the van, a person darting out into the street, or an animal running across the road.
(2) the NHTSA safety advisory
In April of 2001 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a rare “consumer advisory” regarding an increased rollover risk for 15-passenger vans under certain conditions. A recent analysis by the NHTSA revealed that 15-passenger vans have a rollover risk that is similar to other light trucks and vans when carrying a few passengers. However, the risk of rollover increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five occupants to over ten passengers. In fact, 15-passenger vans (with 10 or more occupants) had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded. And, with more than 15 passengers, the rollover rate is a staggering seven times more likely (see table).
Key point. NHTSA’s analysis revealed that loading the 15-passenger van causes the center of gravity to shift rearward and upward increasing the likelihood of rollover. The shift in the center of gravity also increases the potential for loss of control in panic maneuvers.
On April 15, 2002, NHTSA reissued its safety warning concerning the rollover risk of 15-passenger vans. In a press release, NHTSA noted that “the summer of 2001 saw several tragic rollover crashes involving religious groups on trips.” NHTSA also issued a new brochure entitled “Reducing the Risk of Rollover Crashes in 15-Passenger Vans.” You can download a copy at the NHTSA website, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
Number of Crashes, Rollovers, and Rollover Ratios by Occupancy Level of
15-Passenger Vans in Single Vehicle Accidents
|occupancy level||crashes||rollovers||rollover ratio||rollover ratios (1-9 occupants and 10 or more occupants)|
(3) NHTSA safety recommendations
The NHTSA makes the following recommendations to reduce the rollover risk associated with 15-passenger vans:
1. Fewer than 10 occupants.
2. Load occupants from the front of the van.
3. Each occupant is required to wear a seat belt at all times. The van owner should adopt a written seatbelt policy, and drivers should be informed that they are personally responsible for enforcing it. Nearly 80 percent of those killed in 15-passenger van rollovers in 2000 were not wearing seatbelts.
4. Absolutely nothing loaded on the van roof.
5. Van drivers should be well rested.
6. Drivers should drive cautiously (maintain a speed that is safe under the conditions, and be especially careful on rural and curved roads).
7. Inspect tires monthly to check for wear and proper inflation. Worn or improperly inflated tires increase the risk of a blowout. And, a 15-passenger’s tendency to rollover increases dramatically during emergency maneuvers, such as a panic response to a tire blowout.
8. If the van’s wheels drop off the roadway, gradually reduce speed and steer back onto the road when it is safe to do so.
9. Only use drivers who have received specific training on the use of 15-passenger vans. Several options are available, including a van driver certification course offered by the National Safety Council. This training should be repeated every three years.
10. Drivers should keep the van’s gas tank as full as possible.
(4) additional safety recommendations
Churches can reduce the risk of death and injury, and potential liability, even further by adopting some or all of the following precautions:
1. Prohibit the van from being driven in excess of 60 miles per hour.
2. Prohibit the towing of heavy or multi-axle trailers or another vehicle.
3. Prohibit the use of any van after 12 o’clock midnight and before 6 A.M. Overnight trips will be an option only if a professional transportation company is used that provides both the vehicle and driver.
4. Prohibit the use of cellular phones by the driver, while operating the vehicle, under any circumstances. However, a cell phone should be on board for use in emergencies so long as it is not used by the driver while operating the van.
5. Require all drivers to be approved pursuant to church policy. Drivers must have the appropriate class of license, and the church should conduct a check of each driver’s record for traffic offenses or license restrictions to determine if the driver is suitable. This should be updated annually.
6. Drivers should be prohibited from driving for more than ten hours in any twenty-four hour period (unless a shorter limitation is provided under an applicable law or regulation).
7. The van driver is personally responsible for any and all traffic or parking citations, tickets, and fines incurred while he or she is driving.
8. Vans owned or rented by the church can be used only for activities that have been authorized by the church board.
9. When purchasing a new 15-passenger van, insist on laminated glass in all side windows.
10. Vans should be maintained properly, and inspected frequently by a competent mechanic. Keep a log book of all maintenance performed.
11. Have more than one qualified driver for trips of over 6 hours. Drivers should rotate every 2 hours.
12. Drivers should be at least 21 years of age.
13. Be sure that drivers have a list of emergency phone numbers.
14. Use of any sedating prescription or over-the-counter antihistamine (or other medication) by the driver should be strictly prohibited. One church van accident was caused by a driver who was impaired because of his use of an over-the-counter antihistamine while he was driving.
15. Sell 15-passenger vans and obtain minivans. Consider this—many young adults in the church grew up with minivans, and learned to drive in them. This means that finding drivers in the congregation who are familiar with the use of these vehicles is much easier than for 15-passenger vans.
16. Sell 15-passenger vans and purchase a small school bus. Small school buses (seating capacity of 10-20) are initially more expensive than 15-passenger vans, but this is because they incorporate all of the safety equipment mandated by federal law. Further, according to some studies,
the actual per mile cost of a small school bus is less than a 15-passenger van, largely because these buses are far more reliable, have a much longer road life, and require less maintenance. And remember this—according to the NHTSA, school buses are the safest form of travel.
Example. A church owns a 5-year-old 15-passenger van with an odometer reading of 80,000 miles. The van has the original tires, which are dangerously worn. The church board approves the use of the van for an overnight trip by the youth group. The youth pastor is the designated driver for the trip, and the van is loaded with 14 teenagers. Because there is no room to store luggage, the van roof is used for storage. In addition, the van pulls a large trailer. At 4 AM, while the van is maintaining a speed of 70 miles per hour in a heavy rain shower, the back wheels hydroplane and drop off the road. When the youth pastor attempts to drive the van back onto the road by jerking the steering wheel, he loses control and the van rolls over, killing 5 occupants. Some of the victims’ parents sue the church. Under these circumstances, it is possible that a court would conclude that the actions of the church were negligent. But, it is also possible that a court would conclude that the church, and church board, were grossly negligent as a result of their blatant disregard of the NHTSA safety advisory and its recommendations. A finding of gross negligence is a very serious risk since it would expose the church to “punitive damages” that are not covered under its liability insurance policy. In addition, the members of the church board can be personally liable for their gross negligence. While state and federal laws provide uncompensated board members of nonprofit organizations with limited immunity from liability, these laws do not protect against gross negligence.
Key point. The largest insurer of school buses in one state has indicated that it no longer will insure 15-passenger vans that carry children to or from school. This suggests that it may become more difficult for churches to obtain insurance for 15-passenger vans in the future.
Key point. Some church leaders dismiss the risk of using 15-passenger vans to carry people since they only use their van for short “local” trips. But, government data discloses that 70 percent of all van accidents occur within a 25 miles of home.
Key point. Some church leaders insist that 15-passenger vans are “safer” than school buses since vans have seat belts and many school buses do not. This is not true. First of all, many smaller school buses are required to have seat belts. And second, while in some cases larger school buses are not required to have seatbelts, they still are much safer than 15-passenger vans.
2. School Bus Regulations
Key point. Federal law prohibits dealers from selling or leasing a new “school bus” to any school or charity unless the bus conforms to stringent federal safety requirements. A school bus is a vehicle with seating for 11 or more persons that will be “used significantly” to transport children to or from school or school-related activities. The typical 15-passenger van does not comply with any of these requirements. If a church operates a school or preschool, it may be unable to purchase or lease a new 15-passenger van if the van will be “used significantly” for the transportation of students. There are two legal concerns to note. First, some churches have been able to purchase or lease a new 15-passenger van for school use because a dealer ignores the law in order to make a sale. Under these circumstances the church has acquired a “nonconforming vehicle,” and it incurs a significant legal risk in the event of an accident that injures van occupants. Second, federal law does not prohibit the sale or lease of used school buses, and so churches are free to purchase or lease used 15-passenger vans even if they plan on using them primarily for school purposes. However, many states do prohibit the use of new or used school buses that do not comply with stringent safety requirements, and so it is imperative for church leaders to be familiar with state law. Further, if the van is involved in an accident that results in death or injury to an occupant, the church’s potential liability is increased because it was using a vehicle as a school bus that does not comply with federal standards (even though the standards to not technically apply).
In 1966 Congress enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act mandating that new cars sold in the United States adhere to federal safety standards. The Act was amended in 1974 (the School Bus Safety Amendment) to prohibit “dealers” from selling or leasing new “school buses” that do not meet stringent federal standards. The 1974 amendment defines a “school bus” as any bus or van with a seating capacity of 11 or more persons that is “used significantly” to transport “preprimary, primary, and secondary school students” to or from school or school-related events.
Federal school bus standards include minimum performance requirements for (1) emergency exits; (2) interior protection for occupants; (3) floor strength; (4) seating systems; (5) crashworthiness of body and frame (including protection against rollover hazards); (6) vehicle operating systems; (7) windows and windshields; and (8) fuel systems. These standards have been dramatically successful in reducing school bus accidents. According to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminsitration (NHTSA), there are now fewer than 10 school bus passenger fatalities per year out of 10 billion student trips! The NHTSA concludes that traveling in a school bus that conforms to the federal standards is the safest mode of travel—even safer than air travel.
Typical 15-passenger vans were designed to carry cargo, not children, and so they do not meet most of the safety standards that apply to school buses. Therefore, dealers are prohibited by law from selling new 15-passenger vans to any school that will use them “significantly” to transport school students to or from school or a school-related event. For many years, the federal government did not vigorously enforce this law, and new vans were routinely sold to schools for use in the transportation of students. But this is changing. In recent years the government has stepped up its enforcement efforts, and this has resulted in all the major domestic manufacturers of 15-passenger vans sending letters to all their dealers warning them not to sell these vans to any school or other charity if they will be “used significantly” to transport children to or from school.
Unfortunately, there are loopholes in the federal school bus law. It does not apply to the sale of used school buses, and only prohibits dealers from selling buses or vans that meet the definition of a “school bus” and that do not comply with the federal standards. Some dealers continue to sell new vans to schools even though they are “nonconforming.”
In 2001 Congressman Mark Udall of Colorado introduced the School Bus Safety Act in Congress. This bill, if enacted, would prohibit the sale, rental, purchase, or use of any vehicle meeting the definition of a “school bus” for the transportation of school students whether the vehicle is new or used. In introducing this legislation, Congressman Udall observed:
School buses and 15-passenger vans are radically different vehicles. A school bus must meet numerous mandated federal safety standards. School buses have multiple horizontal and vertical steel beams bonded together in such a manner that essentially wraps the passengers in a cage of steel. The inside and outside of the bus is further reinforced by thick sheets of steel. A school bus is generally heavier than a comparable sized passenger vehicle and has exit doors, superior roof structure, an interior aisle, significant interior seat padding, driver visibility, fuel system integrity, and a far superior center of gravity and stability. In addition school buses have special warning light and pedestrian control systems and are generally painted a bright yellow, which are all significant safety features.
The traditional 15-passenger van is structurally and generally a significantly different vehicle. These vans were originally rated as “light trucks” and, as such, were not required to meet passenger safety standards. Therefore, the area behind the driver is anticipated only to carry cargo and does not have side bar protection which accompanies normal passenger vehicles, including mini vans.
The numbers tell the whole story. When evaluating the relative safety of all passenger vehicles and school buses per road mile, studies show that school buses are markedly safer vehicles. In 1994, there were 21,813 deaths in passenger vehicles, which translates to .86 deaths every 100 million miles. In school buses, there were two occupant deaths, which translate into .005 deaths per 100 million road miles. In other words, passenger vehicles per road mile had a fatality rate 170 times higher than school buses.
School buses are the safest form of mechanized transportation that exists. School buses are 34 times safer than train travel and 4 times safer than commercial aviation.
(2) state law
Nearly 30 states now prohibit the use of “school buses” to transport children to or from school that do not comply with the federal standards (i.e., “nonconforming” buses). Similar legislation is pending in several other states. These state laws close a major loophole in federal law (which merely prohibits dealers from selling or renting new school buses rather than prohibiting schools from using them).
(3) can a church van be a school bus?
In most cases, churches that purchase 15-passenger vans do not use them “significantly” to transport children to or from school. As a result, the vans do not meet the definition of a “school bus” and churches have little difficulty persuading a dealer to sell them a van. However, this will not always be the case. Consider the following examples.
Example. A church operates a private school, and would like to purchase a new 15-passenger van that will be used regularly to transport school children to and from school and school-related events. There is little doubt that a 15-passenger van would constitute a “school bus” under these circumstances, and so a dealer would be prohibited by law from selling a new van to the church for these purposes.
Example. Same facts as the previous example. A local dealership wants to make a sale, and so it sells a new van to the church. Federal law does not prohibit the church from using the van for local transportation. It only prohibits the dealer selling the van. Note, however, that in some states the use of the van by the church for transporting students may violate state law. Churches that operate a school should consult with a local attorney regarding the legality of using 15-passenger vans for the transportation of students before purchasing such a vehicle. Whether or not the church’s use of the van as a school bus is prohibited by state law, the fact remains that the church would be incurring a significant legal risk if it used the van as a school bus, for the following reasons: (1) If the van is involved in an accident resulting in injuries to occupants, it would be difficult for the church to defend against a charge of negligence. The argument would be that it is negligent for a church to use a school bus that does not comply with federal school bus regulations, even if such use does not violate state or federal law. (2) It is possible that the church, and members of the church board, could be found guilty of “gross negligence” under these circumstances by using a nonconforming school bus. Such a result could be devastating, since it may result in punitive damages (not covered under the church’s liability insurance policy) and personal liability of the members of the church board. (3) The church could be found negligent on the basis of the NHTSA safety advisory described earlier in this article. That is, the church’s use of a 15-passenger van to transport children constitutes negligence unless many or all of the recommendations made by the NHTSA in its safety advisory are implemented. If these recommendations are not implemented, it is possible for the church, and church board, to be found guilty of gross negligence. This could lead to punitive damages being awarded against the church, and personal liability for the members of the church board.
Key point. The biggest personal injury verdict in one state’s history was awarded against a church school in a case involving the death of a child who was riding in a nonconforming 15-passenger van when it rolled over and killed him.
Example. A church operates a preschool and would like to purchase a new 15-passenger van that will be used on a daily basis to transport preschool students. It is likely that this van will meet the definition of a school bus, and therefore the dealer may not be willing to sell it to the church. If it does, the church will incur significant legal risk (see the previous example).
Example. Same facts as the previous example, except that the church will use the van to transport preschool children only occasionally (once a month). It is doubtful that the van would meet the definition of a school bus since it will not be “used significantly” to transport children to and from school. As a result, the dealer probably will sell the vehicle to the church. The church’s risk in using this van to transport children is not as great as if the van met the definition of a school bus and constituted a “nonconforming” vehicle. However, the risk of liability is still significant since the church could be found negligent on the basis of the NHTSA safety advisory described earlier in this article. A jury might conclude that the church’s use of a 15-passenger van to transport children, even if only occasionally, constitutes negligence unless many or all of the recommendations made by the NHTSA in its safety advisory are implemented. And, if these recommendations are not implemented, it is possible for the church, and church board, to be found guilty of gross negligence. This could lead to punitive damages being awarded against the church, and personal liability for the members of the church board.
3. Interstate Trips
Key point. Federal law imposes strict safety requirements on any “nonbusiness private motor carrier of passengers” (nonbusiness PMCP) that is driven across state boundaries. A nonbusiness PMCP is a vehicle designed to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver) that is driven across state boundaries. Any new or used vehicle owned or leased by a church, that can accommodate more than 15 passengers (including the driver) and that is used at least occasionally to transport persons across state boundaries, must comply with federal safety requirements.
Under federal regulations that took effect in 1995, church buses and vans that are designed to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver) and that are used to transport passengers across state lines must meet strict safety requirements. These requirements are entirely separate from the school bus regulations discussed earlier in this article, and apply whether or not a vehicle is a “school bus.” While these rules do not apply to 15-passenger vans, even if they are used to transport passengers across state lines, they are summarized in this article so that church leaders will clearly understand the rules that apply to the interstate transportation of passengers in church vehicles, regardless of size. If total passenger capacity is more than 15 (including the driver), then the rules summarized in this section apply. If passenger capacity is 15 or less, then these rules do not apply.
Since 1935 the federal government has regulated, for safety purposes, interstate transportation of passengers and property by commercial (“for hire”) motor carriers that offer their services to the public at large. In 1984, Congress expanded federal authority to regulate motor carriers with the enactment of the Motor Carrier Safety Act. Under this new law, the federal government was authorized to regulate any “commercial motor vehicle” with a gross weight rating of 10,001 or more pounds or that is designed to transport 15 or more passengers (including the driver) in interstate commerce. Interstate commerce was defined as transportation “between a place in a state and a place outside of such state (including a place outside of the United States) or is between two places in a state through another state or a place outside the United States.”
In 1989, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the Department of Transportation issued regulations asserting jurisdiction over private motor carriers of passengers. The regulations divide private motor carriers of passengers into 2 classifications:
(1) business private motor carriers of passengers, and
(2) nonbusiness private motor carriers of passengers
The regulations define a nonbusiness private motor carrier of passengers (“nonbusiness PMCP”) as “a private motor carrier involved in interstate transportation of passengers” that is not acting in furtherance of a commercial enterprise. According to the FHWA, this term includes “churches, civic associations, scouts, and other charitable institutions that may purchase or lease buses for sponsored activities.”
Key point. The FHWA has stated that “most churches will fall within the definition of nonbusiness PMCPs.”
To summarize, a church that owns or leases a bus or van will be a nonbusiness private motor carrier of passengers, and subject to federal regulations, if:
• the bus or van is a “commercial motor vehicle,” meaning one that (1) has a gross vehicle weight of 10,001 or more pounds, or (2) is designed to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver) and does not charge compensation, or more than 8 passengers (including the driver) if it does charge compensation, and
• the bus or van is “involved in interstate transportation of passengers,” meaning that it is used to transport passengers “between a place in a state and a place outside of such state (including a place outside of the United States) or between two places in a state through another state or a place outside the United States”
Example. A church owns a van with room for 12 passengers and one driver. The van has a gross vehicle weight of 6,000 pounds. This van is not subject to these regulations. The regulations apply to nonbusiness private motor carriers of passengers, which are defined as any “commercial motor vehicle” that transports passengers in interstate commerce. Since a commercial motor vehicle is one that either has a gross vehicle weight of 10,001 pounds or that is designed to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver), the church van is not a nonbusiness PMCP. It has a gross vehicle weight of only 6,000 pounds, and is designed to transport only 12 passengers plus one driver.
Example. A church has a van with room for 15 passengers (including the driver). The church occasionally uses the van to transport children or adults across state boundaries. The vehicle is not a private PMCP and is not subject to the regulations, since it was not designed to transport “more than 15 passengers (including the driver).”
Example. A church has a van with room for more than 15 passengers (including the driver). The church never transports passengers across state lines. The vehicle is not a private PMCP and is not subject to the regulations.
Example. Same facts as the previous example, except that the church is near a state boundary and frequently transports passengers across the boundary. The church is subject to the regulations that apply to nonbusiness PMCPs.
Example. A church owns a former school bus with a seating capacity of 50. The bus is used within a 100-mile radius of the church, and never goes out-of-state. The bus is not a nonbusiness PMCP since it does not satisfy the requirement of interstate travel.
Example. Same facts as the previous example, except that the church would like to use the bus once or twice a year to take groups of church members on out-of-state trips. Since the bus under these circumstances would be a nonbusiness PMCP the church can either (1) comply with the regulations summarized below, or (2) hire a commercial bus company to provide transportation on the out-of-state trips.
With few exceptions, nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations that apply to commercial carriers. The application of these regulations to nonbusiness PMCPs is discussed below.
1. Commercial drivers license. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require that drivers of commercial motor vehicles have a commercial driver’s license. This requirement applies to nonbusiness PMCPs. This means that if your church owns or leases a van or bus and satisfies the definition of a nonbusiness PMCP discussed above, you must use a driver who has a commercial driver’s license. Drivers can obtain a commercial driver’s license by passing a knowledge and skills test administered by the state. In addition, a state must check an applicant’s driving record before issuing a license. Licenses can be suspended or permanently revoked for various kinds of traffic violations.
2. Insurance. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require that motor carriers of passengers in interstate commerce must maintain a minimum amount of insurance. Nonbusiness PMCPs are exempted from this requirement.
3. Markings. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require that every commercial motor vehicle must be marked on both sides with the following information: (1) motor carrier’s name or trade name; (2) city and state of its principal place of business or where the vehicle is customarily based; and (3) motor carrier identification number preceded by “USDOT.” Nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to this requirement.
4. Qualifications of drivers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require that drivers of commercial motor vehicles be qualified. Briefly stated, a driver must meet the following requirements: (1) be in good health (and pass a Department of Transportation physical exam every 2 years); (2) be at least 21 years of age; (3) speak and read English well enough to do his or her job and respond to official questions; (4) be able to drive the vehicle safely; (5) be able to determine whether the vehicle is safely loaded; (6) know how to block, brace, and tie down cargo; (7) have only one valid driver’s license; (8) pass a commercial driver’s road test; (9) take a Department of Transportation written exam for drivers; (10) not be disqualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle; (11) pass a Department of Transportation drug test.
Nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to the driver qualification rules except that drivers are exempt from (1) the medical examination requirement, and (2) road and written test requirements.
5. Driving of motor vehicles. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations impose the following 7 requirements that apply when driving a commercial motor vehicle: (1) A driver must be sure the vehicle is safe and properly working before each trip and must ensure that emergency equipment is in place; (2) buses must stop at all railroad crossings; (3) the parking brake must be set when a driver leaves a vehicle unattended, and emergency warning devices must be activated in an emergency; (4) headlights must be used from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise or anytime there is not enough light to see clearly 500 feet away; (5) drivers who are involved in an accident must stop immediately and assist injured persons and take steps to prevent additional accidents at the scene; (6) drivers must not smoke when a vehicle is being fueled; and (7) written permission from the motor carrier is necessary for passengers to ride.
Nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to the “driving of motor vehicle” rules.
6. Parts and accessories. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations specify that a motor carrier cannot operate any commercial motor vehicle unless it is properly equipped. Specific requirements apply to (1) lighting devices, reflectors, and electrical equipment; (2) brakes; (3) glazing and window construction; (4) fuel systems; (5) coupling devices and towing methods; (6) miscellaneous parts and accessories; (7) emergency equipment; (8) protection against shifting or falling cargo; and (9) frames, cab and body components, wheels, steering and suspension systems.
Nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to the parts and accessories rules except that they are exempt from the fuel system requirements provided that the vehicle is maintained to the original manufacturer’s standards.
7. Hours of service. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations specify that a motor carrier cannot allow or require a driver to drive (1) more than 10 hours following 8 consecutive hours off duty; or (2) after being on duty for 15 hours; or (3) after being on duty more than 60 hours in any 7 consecutive days. It is recommended that motor carriers and drivers keep a summary of drivers’ hours worked and hours available. Motor carriers must require every driver to make a record of duty status (log) in duplicate for every 24-hour period.
Nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to the “hours of service” rules except for the recordkeeping requirements.
Key point. Some persons who volunteer to drive for their church may also drive for other motor carriers and be required to maintain a record of their duty status (driver log) in that capacity. All on-duty and driving time, performed in a volunteer capacity by an individual who is otherwise regularly employed as a commercial driver, for a nonbusiness PMCP must be recorded on the records of duty-status submitted to that driver’s regular employer. On duty and driving time for those drivers regularly employed must be considered in determining whether the driver has adequate driving time to drive as a volunteer, and vice versa. The FHWA believes that this requirement is necessary to ensure that a fatigued driver is not permitted or required to drive beyond the hours of service limits.
8. Inspection, repair and maintenance.The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations specify that a motor carrier must ensure that all its vehicles are regularly inspected, repaired and maintained. All vehicle parts and accessories must be in a safe and proper working order at all times. Pushout windows, emergency doors, and emergency door marking lights in buses must be inspected at least every 90 days. Every motor carrier must require drivers to complete a vehicle inspection report at the end of each day, listing anything wrong that could affect safe operation. Before driving a commercial motor vehicle a driver must be satisfied that it is in safe working condition, and review the last inspection report.
Nonbusiness PMCPs are subject to the inspection, repair and maintenance requirements except for the recordkeeping requirements.
Key point. Some states require periodic inspections of church buses, and the FHWA has determined that some of these programs satisfy the inspection requirement of federal law.
The safety regulations are enforced primarily through driver and vehicle inspections. Inspections are performed at destination points such as amusement parks, convention centers, and sporting complexes, as well as on the road. Drivers will only be subject to having their commercial driver’s license reviewed and hours of service inspected verified from evidence gathered at the scene. Nonbusiness PMCPs will not be subject to compliance reviews or FHWA’s safety rating process unless the evidence reveals that the carrier has been identified as having ongoing roadside safety inspection problems.
Example. A church owns a bus and transports 50 members of the youth group to an amusement park in a neighboring state. The bus is a nonbusiness PMCP, and if the church has not complied with the federal regulations it risks the vehicle being randomly inspected at the amusement park and found to be in violation.
There is little doubt that the federal regulations are designed to force most churches and other charitable organizations to use commercial bus companies when sponsoring out-of-state trips. Many churches will not be able to comply with the new regulations, and they will be forced to use commercial carriers for their out-of-state trips.
A church that owns or rents a vehicle subject to these requirements, but that does not comply with them, faces significant legal risk in the event of an accident in which an occupant is injured. Further, even if the vehicle is not involved in an accident, the church may be assessed a fine if it is found to be using a nonbusiness PMCP without complying with the requirements summarized above.
Key point. Federal law specifies that the requirements applicable to nonbusiness PMCPs do not apply to “school buses” as that term is defined earlier in this article.
For more information on these regulations, contact your local FHWA office. To obtain this telephone number, visit the FHWA website (www.fhwa.dot.gov).
Application to Churches
This article demonstrates several important legal
concerns associated with the use of 15-passenger vans by churches. Not only are
there significant state and federal regulations that may apply to the use of a
15-passenger van, but there also is the potential for substantial liability if
deaths or injuries result from the use of these vans. And, this liability may
include punitive damages that are not covered by the church’s liability
insurance policy as well as personal liability for members of the church’s
governing board. Because of the importance of these concerns, we recommend that
every board member, youth worker, and van driver be required to read this
© Copyright 2002 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m c0402