Make Your Ministry's Transportation Safety a Priority
manager, risk control
As warm weather arrives, church vehicles increasingly hit the roads. Since vehicle accidents also rise in the summer, it’s a good time to consider what your church may be doing—or not doing—to reduce its accident risk.
Accidents Can Happen at Any Time
Barely 15 minutes into a trip to a Christian youth rally in Mississippi, tragedy struck a group of four Arkansas church youth. The 17-year-old driver, who had been given the keys to a 15-passenger church van, was accompanied by his 15-year-old best friend and two other boys, 13 and 11. Planning to get an early start on the long drive, members of the group loaded their gear, stopped for some doughnuts, and started out about 5 a.m.
Before they had even left town, they had an accident. The van veered to the right and crashed into the heavy base of a shopping mall sign. Although no one was ejected from the van, the front-seat passenger received severe internal and head injuries and later died at a local hospital. The boys in the rear seat were also injured. Only one was wearing a seatbelt.
Although the driver initially said that he swerved to avoid a bicyclist, he later stated that he may have fallen asleep momentarily.
Thousands of accidents like these occur every year with church vehicles, although most are less severe. Many start with a moment of driver inattention—like most car accidents—but turn tragic because larger vans and buses handle differently than cars do.
All too often, churches fail to take simple precautions that could drastically reduce the risk of accidents. “As an insurer of more than 50,000 churches, we manage thousands of claims every year,” said Scott Figgins, Brotherhood Mutual’s vice president of claims. “We see many losses that could probably have been avoided.”
How Could the Church Have Reduced its Risk?
Training and Experience. “The best thing churches can do to make transportation safer is to make driver training and experience a priority,“ noted Brock Bell, senior risk control manager for Brotherhood Mutual. Churches should try to identify drivers with as much experience as possible, preferably at least five years of regular driving. Relatively new drivers (such as 16- to 20-year-olds) lack adequate behind-the-wheel experience—particularly when it involves transporting others.
Further, drivers need specialized training if they’ll be driving a larger van or bus. “The most severe accidents, often involving fatalities or serious injuries, usually are caused by drivers’ lack of understanding of the handling dynamics of longer vehicles,“ said Figgins. Vans and buses have longer wheelbases and higher centers of gravity than cars do, which makes them more prone to rollovers. These are among the reasons the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued multiple warnings about the use of 15-passenger vans.
Figgins added that it’s much easier to lose control in a larger vehicle; the greater weight of a van or bus tends to push it around much more than a car. “If you get one wheel off the side of a road in a car, it’s not hard to get yourself back on the road safely,” he explained. “In a van, the same action can cause the vehicle to start rolling over.“
Seatbelts. All the boys in the Arkansas church’s van should have been wearing seat belts. Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that even in rollover accidents, chances of survival increase significantly if passengers are wearing them.
Driver Attention. Another primary contributing factor in the accident may have been the driver’s tiredness. Particularly when traveling for long periods of time, it’s critical that all drivers get adequate sleep, take frequent breaks, and have back-up drivers.
A Little Up-front Attention Pays Off
When someone is needed to drive a church vehicle, it’s tempting to hand the keys to an available person and assume that everything will be okay. Many times, it will. But consider how much grief the Arkansas church would have been spared if the accident had been prevented.
“It just takes an extra minute or two to check out a vehicle before you drive it,” Bell said, “and getting extra training for drivers usually just takes a few hours. Churches that make a relatively small commitment of time to improving their driving practices can significantly improve their chances of accident-free transportation.“
Perhaps because safety precautions seem mundane, many drivers don’t give them much attention. In group travel situations, basic safety measures are more critical than ever. Take the time to evaluate your church‘s transportation program. You’ll be glad you did.