Q&A: Are New 15-Passenger Vans Safer?

Even with improvements, these vehicles still pose significant risks.

Our church needs a vehicle to help transport groups to and from events. I know past media coverage has suggested 15-passenger vans are unsafe, but with new designs and safety measures, are they now a viable option?

I have previously advised churches to avoid using 15-passenger vans. Let me make some observations about where things currently stand with these vehicles.
As you note, manufacturers of 15-passenger vans have integrated some new features in recent years. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) became standard in these vehicles in 2011. By 2018, many of these vehicles will include rearview cameras. And by 2022, like most other new vehicles hitting the roads, many will feature “forward collision alerts.”
Does the inclusion of these features now make 15-passenger vans safer for churches to use? It doesn’t appear so. None of these features address the core concerns with 15-passenger vans that were previously identified. These problems have persisted for years, prompting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue numerous alerts and advisories regarding the following problems, which contribute to dramatically higher rates of rollovers:
  • high centers of gravity
  • flat sides contributing to instability in crosswinds
  • seating configurations that place excess weight on left rear tire (due to walkway to the rear seats being on right side), contributing to instability
  • designed for the less rigorous standards of transporting cargo
  • width of stance (the distance between the two front tires or two rear tires)
  • lack of maintenance, tire exams, etc

It’s also important to note that many drivers are not experienced in driving 15-passenger vans, which only compounds potential risks. For these reasons, many public school districts nationwide continue to ban the use of 15-passenger vans.

Over the years, a number of churches have been involved in crashes involving 15-passenger vans, as well. If your church already owns and uses a 15-passenger van, it is advisable to sell it. If that isn’t possible, then at least make certain the following NHTSA recommendations are followed:
  • Inspect tire pressure before each use; check the B-pillar (one of the van’s vertical supports) or the owner’s manual for manufacturer recommended tire size and pressure.
  • Inspect spares (they weaken with age even if unused).
  • Use an experienced driver, preferably one with a commercial driver’s license (CDL).
  • Ensure rest for the driver(s) and help them keep road-focused attention while driving (no cell phone use, limited conversation with passengers, only 8 hours of driving in a 24-hour period).
  • Maintain safe speeds (and reduce speeds further in inclement weather).
  • Ensure a total van occupancy of fewer than 10 people.
  • Check strategic placement of cargo (forward of rear axle, nothing on roof, no trailer, etc.).
  • Ensure use of seat belts (80 percent of fatalities occur because passengers are not wearing seat belts).
Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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