By Bob Smietana
Before you hop into the church van for a summer mission trip or other outing—say a prayer.
Then check the tires.
Fifteen-passenger vans are popular with church youth groups, schools, and senior citizen programs, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTHSA). But they can also be dangerous—especially for inexperienced drivers.
At least 600 people have been killed in rollover accidents involving 15-passenger vans, reports the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.
One in 10 (11 percent) of those accidents was caused by tire failure.
“Inspect the tires and check tire pressure before each use,” warns the NTHSA.
Driving too fast and overloading church vans also increase the risk of accidents.
The more people in the van, the more likely it is to overturn, according to Church Mutual, a major insurer for congregations.
“A major problem is that 15-passenger vans have a high center of gravity,” says Church Mutual in its guidelines for church vans. “This center shifts higher and rearward when more occupants board. The rearward shift gives the van a propensity to ‘fishtail,’ and the upward shift increases its likelihood of overturning.”
Rollover accidents are often fatal, says Church Mutual. “More than 80 percent of all fatalities in 15-passenger van crashes occur in single-vehicle rollovers.”
“One of the most popular vans for group travel also is the most deadly,” the insurer warns.
Older 15-passenger vans are more likely to overturn than new ones, according to a Courier-Journal review of data from the NHTSA. Vans from model years before 2005 have been involved with more traffic fatalities.
“Courier-Journal analyzed millions of crash records from six states between 2004 and 2017, finding older vans that lack modern safety features are about 52 percent more likely to roll in a crash when fully loaded and driving at highway speed,” the newspaper reported.
- Never have more than 15 people in a 15-passenger van. Where possible, avoid having people sit in the back seats.
- Always check the tires. Replace worn tires. And post a note near the steering wheel with the proper tire pressures. Avoid using the spare.
- Use experienced drivers. The best option is someone who drives this type of van often. There are also online training guides for drivers that can help them be better prepared. Check with your state to see if a special license is required.
- Pay attention. Put your cell phone down when driving. Make sure the driver is well rested. And don’t distract the driver.
- Don’t overload the van. Loading suitcases or other items on the roof can make a van less stable. So can stuffing the van to the gills with people and luggage. The more weight in the van, the harder it is to drive.
- Wear seat belts. Everyone needs to wear a seat belt. If the van overturns, a seat belt can help save passengers’ lives.
- Slow down. These big vans aren’t nimble, so take your time. Keep to the speed limit. And don’t try sudden moves. Slow and steady is safer.
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.