Article summary. Many churches own 15-passenger vans, and most use them to carry passengers on church-approved trips. The safety of these vehicles was first called into question in a 2001 safety advisory issued by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA recently reissued this safety advisory for the fourth time in five years. This extraordinary action underscores the importance of this issue. It is critical for church leaders to deal responsibly with the risk that 15-passenger vans pose. This article reviews the recent advisory and suggests ways to manage the risk.
In recent years several 15-passenger vans have been involved in horrific accidents resulting in death or serious injury to occupants. In response, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated several of these accidents, and in April of 2001 issued a rare “consumer advisory” regarding an increased rollover risk for 15-passenger vans under certain conditions. The advisory concluded that 15-passenger vans with more than 9 occupants have a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of vans with fewer than 10 occupants.
In May of 2005 the NHTSA took the unprecedented step of reissuing this advisory for the fourth time in five years.
• Key point. See the feature article “Church Vans” in the July-August 2002 edition of the Church Law and Tax Report newsletter.
Any church that continues to use a 15-passenger van following four NHTSA safety advisories is assuming an elevated risk of liability (in addition to the risk such vehicles pose to human life). If one or more occupants are seriously injured or killed in a 15-passenger van accident, a court might conclude that the use of such a vehicle was negligent. But, it is also possible that a court would conclude that the church, and its governing board, were “grossly negligent” as a result of their disregard of four NHTSA safety advisories.
A finding of gross negligence is very serious since it would expose the church to “punitive damages” that are not covered under its liability insurance policy. In addition, the members of the board of directors could be personally liable on the basis of 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.
These risks are enhanced for church schools because of the widespread restriction on the use of 15-passenger vans by public elementary and secondary schools. Consider the following findings:
- 29 states have laws or regulations that prohibit the use of vans for transporting public school students to and from school and school-related activities.
- 12 states have laws and regulations that prohibit the use of vans for transporting public school students to and from school, but allow the use of vans for school activity trips. One state has passed legislation that will prohibit the use of vans for activity trips after June 30, 2006.
- Nine states allow the use of vans for transporting public school students to and from school and school-related activities. One of these nine states has passed legislation that will not allow the use of vans to transport students after June 1, 2008. Another state has a statewide, self-insurance pool that will not insure vans used to transport students after July 1, 2005.
- Federal law prohibits the sale or lease of new 15-passenger vans for the school-related transportation of high school and younger students.
The overwhelming refusal by the states to allow elementary and secondary school students to be transported in 15-passenger vans would be evidence that likely would be cited in any lawsuit brought against a church school as a result of deaths or injuries to occupants of such a vehicle.
If your church owns one or more 15-passenger vans, then the following three options should be considered:
(1) retain your 15-passenger van but restrict its use to carrying cargo
(2) retain your 15-passenger van but strictly comply with all the recommendations made in the NHTSA safety advisories
Compliance with all of the recommendations will provide a defense to liability in the event of an accident. The defense may not be successful, but at least it can be made. Note that the very first recommendation is that the van never contain more than nine occupants. If you select this option, I recommend that you (1) adopt a written policy mandating compliance with all of the NHTSA recommendations, and (2) install the hangtag developed by the NHTSA in every 15-passenger van that is used to carry passengers (available on the NHTSA website).
Here are the recommendations mentioned in the most recent advisory:
- Keep your passenger load light. NHTSA research has shown that 15-passenger vans have a rollover risk that increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than ten. 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.
- Check your van’s tire pressure frequently—at least once a week. A just-released NHTSA study found that 74% of all 15-passenger vans had improperly inflated tires. By contrast, 39% of passenger cars had improperly inflated tires. Improperly inflated tires can change handling characteristics, increasing the prospect of a rollover crash in 15-passenger vans.
- Require all occupants to use their seat belts or the appropriate child restraint. Nearly 80% of those who have died nationwide in 15-passenger vans were not buckled up. Wearing seat belts dramatically increases the chances of survival during a rollover crash.
- If at all possible, seat passengers and place cargo forward of the rear axle—and avoid placing any loads on the roof. By following these guidelines, you’ll lower the vehicle’s center of gravity and lower the chance of a rollover crash.
- Be mindful of speed and road conditions. The analysis of 15-passenger van crashes also shows that the risk of rollover increases significantly at speeds over 50 miles per hour and on curved roads.
- Only qualified drivers should be behind the wheel. Special training and experience are required to properly operate a 15-passenger van. Make sure your driver or drivers have both—and only operate these vehicles when well rested and fully alert.
• Key point. For more information, including free copies of 15-passenger van safety hangtags, as well as the latest NHTSA research and analysis, please visit the agency’s web site at www.nhtsa.gov. Hangtags can also be ordered at no cost by contacting NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Hotline directly at 888-327-4236.
(3) consider selling your 15-passenger van and replacing it with smaller vans or “small school buses”
Many churches and charities have done so. Small school buses are the safest form of transportation. They are safer than commercial aviation. While the initial cost of a new “small school bus” is slightly higher than a fully equipped 15-passenger van, the cost of operation is less expensive because buses are more reliable and have longer useful lives.
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