News Articles

15-passenger van unsafe, drivers need training, government board says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Special training is needed for driving 15-passenger vans — the type of vehicle often used by churches and youth groups, the National Transportation Safety Board said July 15.

The NTSB recommended that states establish programs requiring training and testing for drivers of 15-passenger vans, which make up less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the road but have been found to be prone to rollovers during emergencies. The vans handle differently from cars, requiring a higher skill level, the board said.

While it is only a recommendation and not a requirement, the announcement adds to what has been three years of bad news about the vehicle.

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2001 found that when loaded with 10 or more passengers, the vans were three times more likely to roll over than if they had less than 10 passengers.

Also, last year the NTSB released a report showing that approximately 52 percent of 15-passenger vans involved in single-vehicle, fatal accidents from 1991-2000 experienced a rollover. In the same circumstances, cars rolled over only 33 percent of the time.

Such data has led a church bus business in Franklin, Tenn., to stop carrying 15-passenger vans. Carpenter Bus Sales, which is LifeWay Christian Resources’ endorsed provider of church buses, no longer sells new 15-passenger vans. Terry Butler, Carpenter Bus’ vice president of operations, told Baptist Press that the company began phasing them out several years ago.

“We could see the writing on the wall,” he said.

Butler said he hopes to sell the handful of used vans they have to businesses, such as deliverers. The seats would be taken out to make room for cargo.

Because of safety concerns customers have been steering away from 15-passenger vans, Butler said, adding that there will continue to be “a large migration out of 15 passenger vans [and] into safer vehicles.” His company sells safer alternatives, including commercial buses.

Fifteen-passenger vans were involved in two church-related wrecks during 2001. One wreck that killed four people involved an Assembly of God church in Texas, while another wreck that killed one person involved a Baptist church in North Carolina.

Two factors contributed to the accidents, NTSB said: tires that were weak from old age and seat belts that weren’t worn.

Both vans experienced blown tires and rollovers.

Fifteen-passenger vans were “never really designed to be passenger vehicles,” Butler said. “They were cargo vehicles.” The vans behave “very differently” when loaded and are popular because they are a “low-cost alternative,” he said.

The alternative to the 15-passenger van, the commercial bus, is safer and more comfortable for passengers, Butler said. Instead of entering from the side and dipping down in order to find a seat — a procedure common in vans — passengers enter at the front and walk down an aisle. Some of the buses have overhead reading lights and luggage racks, he said.

“They provide a lot easier access,” he said, adding that there is “a world of difference.”

A new 15-passenger commercial bus will range from $43,000 to $58,000, Butler said. The mileage is comparable to 15-passenger vans, and diesel buses — which boost the gas mileage — are available. His company also sells school buses.

“A lot of churches [have] called on us to provide them with a 15-passenger alternative,” he said.

The NTSB also recommended that 15-passenger van manufacturers install lap/shoulder seatbelts in all seating positions and that the vans be equipped with more padding and protection inside the van in order to minimize the danger to occupants during a wreck.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust