Big Vans: Watch Out for Rollovers

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Organizations that jam kids into 15-passenger vans (often called "church vans") to get them to and from activities had better take it easy: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a consumer advisory last month warning that the vehicles are three times as likely to roll over when carrying 10 or more passengers.

The agency sent the advisory to 75 organizations that it knows use the vehicles, and publicized the warning via the media and on the agency's website (www.nhtsa.gov).

The advisory is tragically old news to Dennis Newkirk, senior pastor at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla. Last spring, a teen member of the church died when one of the vans in a caravan on a mission to help poor people in Mexico rolled over on a highway.

"Every summer I would read some place in the country there was a rollover of a church van headed somewhere - a mission trip or a camp or something like that," Newkirk said "But, I don't know, it just wasn't personal until" last spring's accident.

The federal government prohibited the sale of 15-passenger vans to public schools for the purpose of transporting students in 1974. There are no laws against use of the vehicles by civic organizations, such as youth groups, church groups and colleges, which use them a lot.

The advisory contains the results of research that NHTSA conducted on crash data, rollover propensity and handling characteristics for loaded and unloaded vans. NHTSA (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) decided to conduct the research after the National Collegiate Athletic Association reported that there had been six van accidents involving college athletic teams between the end of 1999 and the first quarter of 2000. All but one of the accidents involved rollovers. The research is described in NHTSA's April Research Note.

Organizations that jam kids into 15-passenger vans (often called "church vans") to get them to and from activities had better take it easy: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a consumer advisory last month warning that the vehicles are three times as likely to roll over when carrying 10 or more passengers.

The research, which looked at seven van models in seven states, found that 13 percent of accidents in which the vans were carrying fewer than 10 passengers involved rollovers, compared with 35 percent of accident for vans carrying more than 10 passengers.

The agency urges that "these vans be operated by experienced drivers" and that organizations "require seat belt use at all times." While drivers transporting more than 15 people for commercial purposes are required by federal law to have commercial driver's licenses, no such requirements exist for drivers of 15-passenger vehicles.

"I doubt in practical terms that [NHTSA's advisory is] enough," said Newkirk of the Henderson Hills Baptist Church. Since last year's fatal accident, the church no longer rents the big vans. This year it contracted with a tour bus company. But Newkirk is doubtful that the government's warning will inspire others to take precautions. It takes a tragedy close to home to force people to make the considerable investment in safety, he said.

Also, at 5,500 members, Henderson Hills is significantly larger than most churches. "These churches," Newkirk explained, "save money for years [to buy vans], and it represents a huge financial commitment ... and for there just to be an advisory or a warning may not be enough to move them to actually doing something [like] get rid of the van or to drive it only when it's partially occupied."

Newkirk favors legislation requiring special licenses for drivers of these vans, and requiring automakers to "either fix the design or quit making the product."

The opposite end of the spectrum in response to the government's warning is represented by a Washington Times editorial. "NHTSA ... is implying that the vans are inherently unsafe, when what's really unsafe is the way they're being used by some people," said the April 11 piece. "The fundamental problem here is NHTSA's approach, which is to lull people into a false sense of security when operating such multipurpose or specialty vehicles as SUVs and large vans."

"We're very clear to say there's nothing inherently unsafe about 15-passenger vans," said NHTSA Pubic Affairs Director Rae Tyson. "It's just that in the hands of an inexperienced driver they can be dangerous."

The agency urges that "these vans be operated by experienced drivers" and that organizations "require seat belt use at all times."

Just three days after the advisory was issued, a van carrying members of a youth group from Grace Baptist Church in Elko, Nev., overturned on a highway. Seven passengers suffered minor injuries, and there were no fatalities. The Nevada Highway Patrol said all 13 people on board were wearing seatbelts.

Contact: NHTSA (202) 366-9550.

- Amy Bracken