As accidents go, the results could not have been worse for the Tippy Toes Learning Academy: four children and their van driver dead, the day care center eventually shut down and its two top officials convicted of reckless homicide. When federal safety officials gathered last month to review the crash, what really infuriated one of them was the vehicle the kids were in: a 15-passenger van.
Yes, the very type of vehicle that countless youth agencies use to ferry around thousands of kids every day. This despite the fact that federal safety officials have been warning for years that the vans are too dangerous for transporting kids, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) essentially recommended again last month that they not be used for that purpose.
From 1993 through 2002, the NTSB says, 574 youths under age 19 were killed in accidents while riding in 12- or 15-passenger vans. During the same period, it says, 57 youths were killed in accidents while riding in school buses.
The NTSB’s latest van warning came after it studied the Tippy Toes crash. Yet many youth-serving agencies still use the vans, and some may not know about their specific dangers or about special driver training that could reduce the risk of severe accidents. Nor have most states enacted safety measures recommended by the NTSB that might also reduce the risk.
Slowly, an increasing number of youth agencies are replacing the vans, largely because of government regulations or pressure from insurance companies. But they are struggling to find alternatives.
One Michigan youth agency is hoping for a $3.4 million federal grant to replace its fleet of 70 vans, while another, in Texas, keeps using its vans despite being told not to, because it can’t afford to replace them.
Those are among the more than 500,000 fifteen-passenger vans still on the road, according to the NTSB, with many of them parked outside youth agencies.
Fifteen-passenger vans first came into use in the 1970s. The Dodge Ram Wagon went on sale in 1971; the Ford E-series was introduced in 1979. In recent years, Ford has been the biggest seller of 15-passenger vans. (The number actually refers to occupants, because it includes the driver.)
One reason for the vans’ appeal is that in most states, vehicles with a capacity of fewer than 16 people do not have to be operated by someone with a commercial driver’s license.
For youth agencies, churches and schools, the vans quickly came to be used like mini-school buses. But while Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), says school buses are “the safest vehicles on the highway – safer than personal cars, SUVs or anything else on the highway,” the 15-passenger van is just about the opposite.
“They have a poorer structural integrity than a school bus,” says Jennifer Bishop, an NTSB senior project manager. “They were originally designed to haul cargo, and they [manufacturers] threw all the seats in.”
“Fifteen-passenger vans have a high rearward center of gravity that makes them susceptible to rollovers,” she says. “Also, people often aren’t wearing seatbelts [in the vans], and the drivers aren’t trained in the particular handling characteristic of the vans.”
In 1993 NHTSA sent the first of three letters to national auto dealer groups and school transportation agencies saying that 15-passenger vans do not meet federal standards for vehicles transporting children to and from schools. Therefore, NHTSA said, federal law makes it illegal to sell a new 15-passenger van for use in transporting children to and from a school.
“But that’s the extent of federal reach on 15-passenger vans,” Tyson says.
Federal laws covering school buses include any vehicle carrying 10 or more passengers to and from a school or school activities. But they do not cover sale of secondhand vans or the use of vans to transport youth when schools are not involved. Those matters are left to the states.
In 1998, lawyers for the YMCA of the USA wrote to NHTSA asking why auto dealers were refusing to sell 15-passenger vans to some YMCAs. “YMCAs are not schools,” YMCA lawyers wrote, asking NHTSA to clarify the rules.
But the federal rule covers any situation in which a van is used to pick up or drop off children at a school, even if the van is used for a non-school activity, such an after-school program run by a nonprofit.
NHTSA told the YMCA that it’s legal to purchase 15-passenger vans for “summer camps and YMCA weekend activities,” but not for transportation to and from schools.
“We issued a warning to local Ys about this issue in 1998,” says YMCA spokeswoman Julie Mulzoff.
Still, it appears that no systematic effort has been made to alert non-school youth-serving groups about the dangers of the vans, even though the safety problems of 15-passenger vans do not go away when the trip doesn’t involve a school.
Since NHTSA’s 1998 exchange with the YMCA, federal transportation safety officials have issued at least four “warnings” or “consumer advisories” arising from information gained from studies of 15-passenger vans or investigations into crashes.
In 1999 NTSB sent out a warning letter about the dangers of “nonconforming buses” – government-speak for 15-passenger vans, which don’t conform to school bus safety standards. The YMCA and YWCA were among those who received the letter, along with national school and school transportation organizations (such as National Conference on School Transportation), the National Parent Teacher Association, national childcare groups, the national office of Head Start, and the national headquarters of 14 major churches.
The letter also urged state governments to require all vehicles carrying 10 or more children to and from schools and day care centers to “conform” to federal safety standards for school buses, which would, in effect, ban 15-passenger vans from those uses.
In 2000, South Carolina passed “Jacob’s Law, under which the use of “nonconforming” vehicles by schools and day care facilities is to be phased out by 2006. The law was named for 6-year old Jacob Strebler, killed in the 1994 crash of a school van.
The following year another NHTSA study on 15-passenger vans found that their rollover risk rose dramatically with the number of passengers. With 10 or more occupants, the rollover rate was nearly three times the rate of vans carrying only a few people. With 15 occupants, the risk of a rollover was almost six times greater than if the van had only five occupants.
Again, however, word may not have trickled down to many youth agencies. And crashes continued.
One day in July 2001, a tire blew out on a 1989 Dodge Ram van as it carried a youth group from the Virginia Heights Baptist Church of Roanoke, Va., back from an outing at the beach. Thirteen passengers and the driver were in the van. The driver slammed on the brakes. The van ran off the road and rolled over. Several youths were seriously hurt, and a 14-year-old girl was killed.
That crash, near Randleman, N.C., and another van accident that killed four people on a church outing in Texas that year, prompted another NTSB investigation.
The NTSB report, released the following year, pointed to the danger of tire blowouts, inappropriate driver responses such as slamming on the brakes (which makes a vehicle more difficult to control) and the vans’ high rollover potential. The board recommended that states establish a driver’s license for 15-passenger vans, requiring applicants to complete special training and pass both written and skills tests that address the difficulty of handling the vans.
No states have done that, says Bishop of NTSB.
By 2002, the dangers of 15-passenger vans also hit the mainstream media. NBC’s “Dateline” and CBS’ “60 Minutes II” did major reports on van crashes.
At the same time, insurance companies began putting on the squeeze. GuideOne, a leading insurer of churches and their vehicles, stopped selling new policies to owners of 15-passenger vans. “GuideOne believes that 15-passenger vans are inherently unsafe,” a company statement said.
In Bellingham, Wash., Northwest Youth Services changed its auto insurance carrier this year, and Executive Director David Webster is glad his agency doesn’t use 15-passenger vans. “No one is willing to take you on if you have them,” Webster wrote in an e-mail.
Also in 2002, DaimlerChrysler discontinued production of its 15-passenger vans.
More youth agencies now say they’re hearing, and heeding, the warnings.
The national headquarters of the YMCA and of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) say they alerted branches and affiliates about the dangers of the vans in 2002 and 2003.
BGCA officials say they sent a recommendation to their clubs in May 2002 to check with insurance carriers about possible discontinuance of coverage and with state transportation agencies about any new rules governing 15-passenger vans. BGCA also recommended that clubs limit occupancy of 15-passenger vans to 10 or 11, which is in line with federal warnings.
The YMCA’s Mulzoff says federal warnings about the vans were forwarded to member clubs in 2002 and 2003, and that the YMCA also discourages use of 15-passenger vans. “We’re doing all we can to prevent [branches] from doing that,” she says.
But 15-passenger vans are still found parked outside YMCAs, BGCAs and other youth agencies.
Some agency administrators say they are especially careful about basic safety precautions in the warnings about 15-passenger vans. At Operation Fresh Start, an educational and vocational program in Madison, Wis., Deputy Director Jim Sanders says drivers make sure all passengers are buckled in before the vans move.
The Los Angeles Conservation Corps goes further. It says anyone who operates one of its 25 fifteen-passenger vans must take a four-hour course that includes the “60 Minutes II” segment on van dangers. “A lot of our workers are very surprised” by what they see on the video, said Paul Patiño, safety/fleet manager for the corps.
Drivers must then sign a statement that says, among other things, that they “understand that the risks of rollovers dramatically increase as the numbers of occupants increases,” and that “my vehicle is extended to accommodate a total of 14 passengers and that my wheelbase is not designed long enough, thus increasing my risk of rolling over.”
The April 2002 crash in Memphis, Tenn., of the Ford E-350 van operated by the Tippy Toes day care center stands as a worst-case scenario.
The van left the road and hit a bridge abutment. The NTSB, which held a hearing in Washington, D.C., last month to review the incident, found that the driver was under the influence of marijuana and suffered from an undiagnosed sleep disorder that caused him to doze off repeatedly. The board said daycare center operators had been told that the driver had a hard time staying awake and smoked pot. Also, the children in the van were not wearing seatbelts.
Even with all that, the board’s report said, “Had Tippy Toes Learning Academy used a vehicle built to school bus standards … rather than a 15-passenger van, the injuries resulting from this accident might have been less severe.”
The crash put Tippy Toes out of business. The owner and director were both convicted of reckless homicide and each was sentenced to two years in prison.
The NTSB said state agencies overseeing childcare should require “use of vehicles built to school bus standards.” Fifteen-passenger vans don’t qualify. Was the agency’s bureaucratic language actually saying that kids shouldn’t be transported in 15-passenger vans at all?
“That’s right,” says Bishop, the NTSB project manager, who has led investigations into eight fatal crashes of 15-passenger vans.
At the hearing, NTSB member John J. Goglia wondered aloud if camps and youth agencies were also hearing the warnings about the vans. “We’re asking people to get the word out,” Goglia said, “but is it getting there?”
Those who do get the word say it has thrust them into a costly dilemma.
Loren Brown, vice president of Holy Cross Children’s Services in Clinton, Mich., is studying brochures for new vans. That’s because his agency has a fleet of 70 fifteen-passenger vans statewide, using them to take youngsters to school from group homes and foster homes. The schools have notified Holy Cross, formerly known as Boysville, that the vans must be replaced. For that, the agency is hoping for passage of the Transportation Equity Act now before Congress; it includes $3.4 million for the agency to buy new vehicles.
Eric Taylor, vice president for development and operations for the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in Greenwood, S.C., says his desk is covered with brochures touting new vans and buses. The home operates four mini-buses, but Taylor says “they’re not driver-friendly, and our people are intimidated to drive them.”
So he’s looking for something safe, but smaller. Ensuring vehicle safety, he says, “comes with a price tag.”
The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington had a fleet of 40 fifteen-passenger vans, but 25 have been replaced by the school bus-like “multifunctional school activity buses” that NHTSA sanctioned last year. (See sidebar.) The Washington BGCA says every full-time youth worker at its clubs must take a four-hour course on driver safety in the vans and buses.
Some youth agencies are considering buying something from a new class of vehicles, such as the Dodge Sprinter, which carries 10 occupants and is therefore not covered by federal school bus regulations.
Other agencies say they can’t afford to switch. CrossRoads Youth and Family Services in Victoria, Texas, has been operating 15-passenger vans for 30 years without a problem, says Executive Director Stan Hamlyn. The agency’s operations include an emergency shelter for abused and homeless kids.
Most trips involve three or four kids, and occasionally 10 or 12, Hamlyn says. “We don’t hire bus drivers; we hire people who love children,” he says.
The local schools have said CrossRoads shouldn’t use 15-passenger vans to take kids to school, so Hamlyn is pricing mini-vans and other options. But he’ll keep using the 15-passenger vans “until somebody calls our bluff.”
“In an ideal world, where everything is absolutely safe, you wouldn’t drive 15-passenger vans,” Hamlyn says. “But in our situation, you do what you have to, and try to be as safe as you can.”
Jennifer H. Bishop, Senior Project Manager
National Transportation Safety Board
Office of Highway Safety
490 L’Enfant Plaza SW
Washington, D.C 20594
A New Alternative to Vans
Few youth agencies can afford (or find a place to park) a fleet of school buses, but many of them are making room for something that’s smaller and is built to some of the same key safety standards.
Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sanctioned a new type of vehicle called the “multifunctional school activity bus,” which can be built on a van chassis but comes with the special structural reinforcements of a school bus passenger cabin. It looks like a school bus but needs no flashing lights or other appurtenances of school buses, and it’s not painted yellow.
They’re selling well, manufacturers say, especially because of the growing resistance among insurance companies to cover 15-passenger vans.
But the new buses are expensive. New 15-passenger vans sold by Ford and General Motors cost between $25,000 and $30,000. Collins Industries, the largest builder of small school buses in the United States, says its new multifunctional buses run from $31,000 for 14 passengers to $40,000 for 28 passengers.
“It’s pennies a day difference to have the safest vehicle on the road.” pitches Paul Kessler, president of the Collins bus division.
He says the buses last longer, have higher resale values and should cost less to insure than 15-passenger vans.
Tim Sheahan, executive vice president of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, says the club’s multifunctional buses (holding 14 occupants) run about $34,000 each, but the insurance is not cheaper than it is for vans, perhaps because the buses are worth more.
The club is switching to the new vehicles for safety reasons and he’s happy with them, Sheahan says, except that it takes five months to get one.