15-Passenger Vans Pose Safety Risks
Federal studies, recently passed laws, and the all-too-frequent word of fatal accidents are
causing concern about the use of 15-passenger vans by schools and churches. Consider
these recent newspaper headlines:
“Big Loads in Big Vans Carry Big Rollover Risks”
“Seven Killed, Three Hurt When Church Van Flips in California”
“Church Van Rolls Off Roadway”
In April 2001, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA)
issued a study of more than 2,000 of the popular 15-passenger vans that showed the
following relationship between load and probability of rollover:
• Fewer than 10 passengers: 12.7% may rollover
• Ten and more passengers: 35.4% may rollover
• Sixteen and more passengers: 70% may rollover
Rollover risks are dramatically on the rise as the number of van occupants increases with
church and school events. When the van is occupied by 10 or more occupants, the rollover
rate is nearly three times that of vans that have fewer passengers. With 15 or more traveling
occupants, the risk of a rollover is almost six times greater than if the van had only five
The NHTSA repeated its 15-passenger van warning in 2002, again in 2004, and then
announced additional research in 2005 that reinforced its existing concerns about 15
passenger vans. Contributing factors which came out of the 2005 study focused on im-
proper tire maintenance on 15-passenger vans which stated that 74 percent of all 15-
passenger vans had significantly over or underinflated tires by 25 percent or more. Such
improperly inflated tires can change handling characteristics, increasing the potential for a
rollover crash in passenger vans. Lack of seatbelt use is another contributing factor to deaths
associated with 15-passenger van accidents.
By comparison, passenger cars have a rollover risk of less than 10%. Combine the increased
rollover potential with the lack of seatbelt use, poor driver selection, passenger misconduct,
and the lack of side impact protection, and the risks of fatality and serious injury involved in
a van accident are great.
It is unclear how widespread changes will be as a result of this study. The Federal
government seems to be serious about their enforcement. In mid-1997, NHTSA took legal
action against six automobile dealers it alleges knowingly violated the law by selling vans to
school clients for student transportation use.
More pressure is being put on states to conform to the federal law and pass state laws
regarding use of the vans. The families of accident victims are applying much of this
Much like the issue several years ago on the use of pre-1977 manufactured school busses,
more insurance companies are re-thinking their coverage of churches and schools that utilize
these vans. Policyholders should expect more information, reports, and possible changes or
more stringent requirements attached to their coverage.
Suggested van safety measures are:
1. Improve driver selection including defensive driving classes.
2. Obtain a copy of the drivers’ driving licenses to verify type of license, restrictions
and valid license. Maintain files on all drivers of church vehicles including
documentation of defensive training classes, copies of personal automobile insurance
and steps taken to correct any deficiencies in the driver’s conduct or driving ability.
3. Provide adequate driving training courses and document participation.
4. Conduct pre-trip and post-trip inspections of the vehicle and maintain excellent
records for future reference in court.
5. Require all riders to wear seatbelts when in the van.
6. Require all church vehicles to maintain up-to-date medical kits, emergency
equipment i.e.: flashlights, emergency flares, fire extinguishers and means of
7. Drive defensively and maintain a 60 mph maximum.
8. Rotate drivers on long trips.
9. Prohibit the driver from the use of a cell-phone while driving.
10. Prohibit the driver from eating while driving the van.
11. Prohibit the driver from placing any object on the console that could fall or distract
the driver while the van is in motion.
12. Do not transport children in 15-passenger vans.
13. Do not pull a trailer behind a 15 passenger van. The trailer can cause the van to flip
over. Remove the trailer hitch on the van.
14. Avoid overreaction and sudden movement of the steering wheel, rapid maneuvers
and sharp turns, which can result in a chain reaction of overcorrecting and loss of
15. Do not remove the rear seat of the van. Do not allow passengers to sit in lawn chairs
or other seating devices that are not bolted to the floor of the van.
16. Never load items on the top of the van, as the center of gravity will cause the van to
17. Keep the gas tank full to lower the center of gravity.
18. Require all maintenance be conducted by licensed, insured and bonded mechanics
that can be held responsible for poor workmanship of product failure.
19. Drivers should be between the ages of 25 and 65, with no accidents or tickets within
the last 3 years.
20. Always have two adults in the van at all times, in case of an emergency, as well as
witness protection for your volunteer driver against false statements accusing them
of inappropriate activity.
21. Maintain a minimum of $1 million in liability coverage on all church transportation
vehicles. Include Hired and Non-Owned liability coverage for vehicles used in the
activities on behalf of the church either borrowed, loaned or leased.
22. Maintain a minimum of $1 million in additional liability coverage under a
Commercial Umbrella policy.
Michael B. Russell, MA, MBA
Licensed Insurance Consultant
Mike Russell & Associates, Inc.
2400 SE C Street
Bentonville, Arkansas 72712