Follow 15-Passenger Van Safety Guidelines

If your church, school, or ministry uses 15-passenger vans, you should be aware that they're more likely than other vehicles to roll over, causing serious injuries and fatalities. Their rollover risk increases dramatically as the number of occupants rises, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A federal law prohibits schools from buying, renting, or leasing new 15-passenger vans for transporting students to and from school-related activities, unless the vans meet all of the safety requirements as school buses. The NHTSA recommends that these vans not be used to transport preschool and school-age children. It encourages churches and other groups to use buses or smaller vans instead. 

According to the NHTSA, an overloaded 15-passenger van both increases the rollover risk and makes the vehicle more unstable in all handling maneuvers. 

Because of this, ministries must pay greater attention to tire maintenance, passenger loads, and road conditions. In addition, driver training and experience is essential to operate these vehicles safely. 

New 15-passenger vans come equipped with advanced safety technology that help address their risk of rolling over. Features include automatic emergency braking, collision and lane departure warnings, stability control, tire pressure monitoring, and more. Older models, especially those produced before 2006, likely don't have this technology. 

Some Safety Issues

Fifteen-passenger vans were designed to carry cargo and were later fitted as passenger vehicles. Because of their original design, they don't comply with many of the safety requirements that apply to passenger cars or school buses. Your ministry should be aware of the following safety issues associated with using these vans as passenger transportation.

Handling. When more than 10 people occupy the van, the passenger weight raises the center of gravity and shifts it to the rear. This makes 15-passenger vans more likely to overturn in an emergency. Also, because these vans are substantially longer and wider than cars, they require more space for changing lanes and more time for braking.

Traction. Most 15-passenger vans have single rather than dual rear wheels, limiting rear traction. A sharp turn in an emergency could cause rear tire slide, or fishtailing.

Glass. Most passenger vehicles use laminated glass, but many vans manufactured before 2008 use tempered glass, which is less likely to keep occupants from being thrown out of the vehicle during a collision.  

Precautions to Take

If your ministry uses 15-passenger vans, you may be able to reduce the risk of accidents by following these precautions:

Inspect Tires. During a pre-trip inspection, examine the tires and check tire pressure before each use to make sure they're properly inflated and that the tread isn't worn. Follow the manufacturer's recommended tire pressure found inside the driver's door or in the owner's manual. Note that the pressure may differ for front and back tires. Avoid using old tires, since even unused tires weaken with age. 

Screen Drivers. Screen drivers before they get behind the wheel. Choose trained, experienced drivers who are properly licensed and have safe driving records. 

Require Training. Make specific training in the use of 15-passenger vans a requirement for drivers, and have them repeat the training every two or three years. The National Safety Council offers classroom training in van safety, and Brotherhood Mutual offers an online 15-passenger van training course. Require new volunteers to practice driving ministry vans before allowing them to transport passengers.

Require Seat Belts. Require occupants to wear seat belts at all times. Create a written policy to this effect, and make drivers responsible for enforcing it. Inspect seat belts regularly and replace any that are missing or broken. More than 85 percent of those killed in 15-passenger van rollover crashes were not wearing seat belts, according to the NHTSA.

Remove Rear Seat. Remove the rear seat to make sure that passengers sit in front of the rear axle, and load occupants from the front.

Limit Occupants. Take no more than nine passengers.

Prevent Overloading. Keep the rear area as free of luggage or equipment as possible to prevent overloading. Carry nothing on the roof, and don't tow anything behind the van. 

Ban Night Driving. Drivers need to be rested and attentive to driving at all times. Ban the use of vans between midnight and 6 a.m. The combination of driver fatigue and poor visibility after dark can be dangerous, even deadly.

Turn Off Cell Phones. Create a policy that requires ministry drivers to avoid talking or texting on mobile devices while the vehicle is in motion. 

Limit Drive Time. Prohibit each driver from operating the vans for more than 8 hours in any 24-hour period. Have more than one qualified driver for trips of more than six hours, and have drivers rotate shifts every two hours.

Watch Speed. Drive at a safe speed, based on driving conditions. The driver should never speed and should always slow down if roads are wet or icy, since these vehicles don't respond well to abrupt steering maneuvers.

Distance Doesn't Matter

Safety considerations apply regardless of the distance you're planning to travel in a 15-passenger van. Some church leaders believe there isn't as great a risk if they use their vans only for short trips. However, government figures indicate that 70 percent of all van accidents occur within a 25-mile radius of the van's home base.

Related Resources

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program. Your organization is responsible for compliance with all applicable laws.