Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

Your church’s youth group is growing and your Youth Pastor has mentioned that off-site events have contributed significantly to that growth. So that more off-site events can be offered he recommends that the church buy a 15-passenger van.

Should churches use 15-passenger vans?

Many of us probably have fond memories as youth riding in a church van or a church member’s car as we traveled to church camp or even day activities off site. Sometimes the conversations that took place on the road had a greater impact on us than the event itself.

The thought of a church buying a large passenger van and having the church’s name and logo painted on its side can be very enticing to a pastor wanting to foster relationships and growth.

But there is a less glamorous side to owning a van that a church should consider before it decides to start acquiring a fleet of vehicles—especially 15-passenger vans.

Originally auto manufacturer made 15-passenger vans by taking their 12-passenger van designs and adding extra length to the vehicle’s body. Often they left the distance between the front and rear axles, or wheelbase, unchanged. This created a vehicle that, when filled to capacity, had a propensity to roll over during emergency maneuvers. Tests have shown that as the passenger load increases from 5 to 10, the vehicle’s center of gravity moves up and to the rear, affecting handling and increasing the likelihood of a rollover.

In fact, government tests of fully loaded vehicles demonstrated that rollovers were possible at speeds as slow as 35 mph. Fortunately full loads were simulated with something other than real people and special outriggers kept the vehicles from sustaining any damage.

A major insurer of churches offers two different premium levels for covering 15-passenger vans. A higher premium is charged if the rear seat is left in the vehicle and a less expensive premium if the seat is removed. If a church already owns a 15-passenger van, they also ask that the van be modified with one of several suspension stabilization devices. On the company’s website they note, “When the vans carry 10 or more people, they are three times more likely to roll over than when they carry nine or fewer.”

More recent designs of 15-passenger vans include a lengthened wheelbase and technological additions such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control, all of which have the potential to reduce these vehicles’ propensity to roll. However, we are not aware of any recent tests that demonstrate whether these technological updates are effective in preventing rollovers.

In a July 2003 press release, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted, “… 15-passenger vans are not required to meet the same occupant protection and roof crush standards that passenger vehicle have to meet, despite the fact that they are used in a manner similar to passenger cars.”

Because the roof crush standards for a van are less than for other passenger vehicles, once a passenger van lands on its roof, the roof supports tend to buckle, collapsing the roof onto the occupants.

But your Youth Pastor pleads with you, saying that he will only have people with safe driving records operate the church’s van. That’s a good first step. And checking your volunteer drivers’ driving records annually is an excellent follow-up practice.

But in the same NTSB press release that we mentioned earlier they, “concluded that the safe operation of 15-passenger vans requires a knowledge and skill level different and above that for passenger cars, particularly when the vans are fully loaded or drivers experience an emergency situation.”

Another major insurer of churches prefers that drivers of 15-passenger vans have a commercial driver’s license-even though it’s not required by law. If a driver doesn’t have a CDL they require that they participate in mandatory insurance company training before getting behind the wheel.

But sometimes even the safest driver becomes victim to circumstances outside of his or her control. Most churches utilize volunteers to drive church-owned vehicles to various events. Often these volunteer drivers must rely on the assumption that someone else has been making sure that the vehicle that they drive only very occasionally is well maintained and in good condition.

Transporting individuals is one of the most
hazardous activities that a church can engage in.

Church-owned vehicles are often considered to be the winners of the low-mileage race. Instead of getting used on a daily basis, they end up getting driven very infrequently. Often church-owned vehicles don’t have the benefit of being stored in a garage, but instead are parked outside, exposed to the elements. The most serious safety problem that can result from such conditions is tire rot. When tire rot developes, a tire’s tread can look barely worn, but meanwhile the sidewalls have become cracked and deteriorated, resulting in highly dangerous and untrustworthy tires.

Again we turn to the NTSB’s press release:

“Contributing to the accidents was the deterioration of tires, which was caused by the churches’ lack of tire maintenance. The drivers failed to check the condition of their tires for cracking and dry rot. The tires on these vans had become rotten from UV damage, age, limited use, and being operated in under-inflated conditions.”

The press release’s main focus was on two accidents involving church-owned vans on church sponsored trips. Fatalities resulted from both accidents. In one accident in which there was a driver and 11 passengers in a 15-passenger van, the left rear tire blew out. The vehicle left the roadway and rolled several times. The driver and three passengers died.

We can only imagine the pain a church would experience if such a tragedy were to befall it. The grief would be devastating enough, but what about the lawsuits that might follow. Many attorneys make a nice living representing people who have suffered losses from similar situations. Please understand that churches are not immune. Transporting individuals is one of the most hazardous activities that a church can engage in.

If you would like help writing a transportation policy for your church, that’s what we’re here for. We look forward to the opportunity of helping you make transporting people for your church a safe and fun activity.

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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