BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–The popular form of transportation for churches — 15-passenger vans — may soon not be an option at all.
“They are moving in the direction of not insuring them [15-passenger vans] the insurance industry as a whole,” said Alejandra Soto, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
“There have been so many accidents and lawsuits and that’s how it has really affected insurers; it just becomes too expensive to insure. That’s the general trend,” she said.
She said that eventually if any insurers do insure them, the premiums likely will be so high that it will be cheaper for the insured to invest in a vehicle that has a better insurance rating.
This poses a question: Are churches parking their vans and investing in safer transportation or ignoring a widespread warning about the dangers of 15-passenger vans?
“It would be very easy to base our decisions purely on business,” said Jeff Hanna, executive director of GuideOne Center for Risk Management. “But we have the claims and stories about people who are being killed in these vehicles — often eight to 15 people dying at once, and the impact on a ministry is phenomenal. Many ministries have never recovered from these.”
GuideOne, the nation’s leading insurer of churches, has stopped writing any new policies on 15-passenger vans. They will consider renewing policies for their existing customers only if drivers attend and pass special driver training courses that teach advanced techniques in operating the 15-passenger vans.
GuideOne recommends that all churches, daycare centers, schools and other groups immediately consider safer transportation alternatives and abandon the use of 15-passenger vans.
These vehicles do not have to pass the passenger tests from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that other passenger vehicles do, and drivers are not currently required to have a commercial driver’s license — two factors that increase danger to passengers, GuideOne’s chief operating officer, Jan Beckstrom, noted in testimony regarding van safety before the Maryland legislature earlier this year. More than two years ago these vehicles were proven by the NHTSA as unsafe for passenger transport.
Federal legislation introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate this April, if passed, would add a requirement that all 15-passenger vans pass the same NHTSA testing that all other passenger vehicles have been subject to for years. This would render existing and especially older 15-passenger van models used for transporting people illegal from this standpoint.
The National Traffic Motor Vehicle Safety Act, meanwhile, is an existing federal law that prohibits a dealership from selling a 15-passenger van to a school, church or other entity for the purpose of transporting children through teenagers of traditional high school age.
Because these vans were originally designed to carry cargo, not people, the vehicle’s higher center of gravity by design results in poor balance of the vehicle, especially when carrying 15 people. With the center of gravity being askew, what would be a minor traffic mishap becomes a deadly out-of-control situation. The lack of safety features to protect passengers further endangers them.
If churches must continue to use their 15-passenger vans, expert handling in emergency situations is essential to lessening part of the risk involved with their design, Hanna said. GuideOne strongly recommends that drivers of these vans have a chauffeur’s license, a commercial driver’s license or have successfully completed an approved school bus training course.
Jim Swedenburg, coordinator of annuity and insurance services with the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, strongly recommends that churches allow no one to drive a 15-passenger van unless they have a commercial driver’s license.
Swedenburg recommends seating people in the front first, then middle seats and removing the rear seat entirely. “Never seat people in the rear seat with the middle and front seats vacant, and never tow a trailer with one of these vehicles,” Swedenburg said, noting these measures will not guarantee the safety of the vehicles.
A church that knows about the risks and does nothing about it, but continues to use the vans as usual takes a big legal risk, according Richard Hammar in Church Law & Tax Report, August 2002. “If a court concludes that a church’s use of a 15-passenger van amounts to ‘gross negligence,’ then the church may be accessed punitive damage (which is not covered under its general liability insurance policy) and the members of the church board may be personally liable,” he noted.
The concern over 15-passenger vans is one that affects all churches.
“It’s not just a large church issue, because a lot of small churches have one of these vans,” Swedenburg said.
While mini-buses with school bus ratings standards cost more than 15-passenger vans, they are gaining in popularity, according to bus distributors and transportation experts.
The National Safety Council notes that “the risk of death to a passenger traveling in a school bus is 172 times less than someone traveling in an automobile. In fact, school buses are the safest form of transportation that exists — they are 34 times safer than train travel and four times safer than commercial aviation.”
A primary reason for the safety of school buses is the steel cage enclosure utilized in their design and construction, Swedenburg said.
To encourage churches to buy mini-buses instead of vans, GuideOne offers discounts for buying the “safer transportation.”
Still, more than 500,000 of 15-passenger vans still travel the nation’s roadways in 2003. Swedenburg said if churches plan to continue use of their 15-passenger vans, they should contact their insurance company to find out its policy on the insurability of the vehicles.
Julie Pulliam, public affairs director with the American Insurance Association in Atlanta, said insurance requirements for those insuring 15-passenger vans, such as churches, nonprofits and other entities, likely will include the U.S. government’s recommendations that all passengers, regardless of where they are seated, wear seatbelts and that drivers be trained and experienced. If these requirements are not met, the insurance can be revoked and not reinstated at the discretion of the insurer.
“For the churches that have vans to sell that nobody wants, they might sell them as cargo vehicles,” Swedenburg advised. Because the vans were originally built to put cargo in, business trades such as plumbing and electrical could find use for them.
Legal authorities also advise the seller of a 15-passenger van to obtain the buyer’s signature on a disclaimer within the bill of sale in which the buyer agrees to use the van to transport cargo only, not passengers.
The NHTSA, in its report on 15-passenger vans a couple of years ago, warned that they were much more likely to roll over and result in more fatalities than regular passenger vehicles. The risk of a fully loaded 15-passenger van rolling over is 70 percent whereas the risk of a passenger car rolling over is less than 10 percent, NHTSA tests show.
People or cargo in the back of the van make it too heavy at the back and raises the center of gravity of the vehicle, causing it to handle improperly on the roadway. Carrying luggage or anything else on the roof greatly aggravates this unbalance. Because of this and other facets of the van’s design, accidents in these vans result in unusually high numbers of fatalities — since 1990 more than 500 people have been killed in accidents while riding in or driving these vans, according to the NHTSA.
The vans came into use when manufacturers re-outfitted them, adding windows and seats to sell them as passenger vehicles, but they did nothing for passenger safety — no side impact re-enforcement and no redesign to correct rollover problems.
Daimler Chrysler stopped making 15-passenger vans in 2002 and General Motors has begun increasing some of its standards, Hanna said.
“There’s a lot of questions being asked about the van safety issue,” Swedenburg said. “I’m concerned that it often takes several years for all of our churches to be aware of certain issues, but I hope this one is moving a little more quickly.”
Anthony Wade is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.