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What Church Leaders Should Know
About Church Vans

By Richard R. Hammar

Sidebars to the article Managing the Changing Dynamics of Legal Risk and Ministry

Background

You don’t have to drive very far before encountering a 15-passenger van. The federal government estimates that there are 500,000 in use. They are everywhere, and the reason is simple—they are relatively cheap and they can carry a lot of people. Many churches own one or more of these vans and use them for multiple purposes, including transporting minors to local and out-of-town church activities or transporting adults to church services. Some churches use 15-passenger vans to provide transportation to children who attend a church-operated preschool or after-school program.

Church leaders should be aware of two "safety advisories" issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that raise serious questions about the safety of these vehicles. Unfamiliarity with these advisories can expose a church, and the members of its board, to astronomical liability in the event of a church van accident that results in death or serious injury.

Recent Accidents

Many 15-passenger church vans carrying passengers have been involved in horrific accidents resulting in death or serious injury to occupants. Consider the following examples.

Example. A 15-passenger church van taking children home following an after-school program at a South Carolina church was struck by a truck. Six children were killed.

Example. A 15-passenger van carrying members of a Colorado church’s youth group rolled over, killing five teenage occupants.

Example. A 15-passenger church van carrying 11 teenage members of a Georgia church youth group rolled over, ejecting 10 of the passengers and killing three of them. The one teenager who was not ejected survived the accident. He was the only member of the youth group who was wearing a seatbelt, even though seatbelts were available for each passenger.

Why are 15-Passenger Vans Dangerous?

Why are 15-passenger vans so dangerous? For many reasons, including the following:

The NHTSA Safety Advisory

The NHTSA issued a rare "consumer advisory" in 2001 warning of the rollover risk of 15-passenger vans. The advisory concludes that a 15-passenger van with more than 15 occupants has a rollover risk nearly seven times greater than a lightly loaded van (fewer than 5 occupants) in a single vehicle accident. The rollover risk is nearly 3 times greater with more than 9 occupants than with less than 10.

The NHTSA reissued this safety advisory in April 2002, in part because of "several tragic rollover crashes involving religious groups on trips" during the summer of 2001.

Churches that continue to use 15-passenger vans to transport people are assuming an increased risk of liability unless they take specific steps to reduce that risk. If a court concludes that a church’s use of a 15-passenger van amounts togross negligence, then the church may be assessed punitive damages (which are not covered under its general liability insurance policy), and the members of the church board may be personally liable.

Nhtsa Safety Recommendations

The NHTSA safety advisory makes the following specific recommendations to reduce the rollover risk associated with 15-passenger vans:

  1. Fewer than 10 occupants.
  2. Load occupants from the front of the van.
  3. Each occupant is required to wear a seat belt at all times. The van owner should adopt a written seat belt policy, and drivers should be informed that they are personally responsible for enforcing it. Nearly 80 percent of those killed in 15-passenger van rollovers in 2000 were not wearing seat belts.
  4. Absolutely nothing loaded on the van roof.
  5. Van drivers should be well rested.
  6. Drivers should drive cautiously (maintain a safe speed under the conditions and be especially careful on rural and curved roads).
  7. Inspect tires monthly to check for wear and proper inflation. Worn or improperly inflated tires increase the risk of a blowout. And, a 15-passenger van’s tendency to roll over increases dramatically during emergency maneuvers, such as a panic response to a tire blowout.
  8. If the van’s wheels drop off the roadway, gradually reduce speed and steer back onto the road when it is safe to do so.
  9. Only use drivers who have received specific training on the use of 15-passenger vans. Several options are available, including a van driver certification course offered by the National Safety Council. This training should be repeated every 3 years.
  10. Drivers should keep the van’s gas tank as full as possible.

Churches can reduce the risk of death and injury, and potential liability, even further by adopting additional precautions, including:

Key point. School buses are the safest mode of transportation available today. While "small" school buses (10–20 passengers) cost more than 15-passenger vans, their "cost per mile" is actually lower according to some studies because they are far more reliable, have a much longer road life, and require less maintenance.

Key point. Some church leaders dismiss the risk of using 15-passenger vans to carry people since they only use their van for short local trips. But government data discloses that 70 percent of all van accidents occur within 25 miles of home.

Key point. Some church leaders insist that 15-passenger vans are "safer" than school buses since vans have seat belts and many school buses do not. This is not true. First, many smaller school buses are required to have seat belts. Second, while in some cases larger school buses are not required to have seat belts, they still are much safer than 15-passenger vans.

The Bottom Line

Churches that continue to use 15-passenger vans to transport people are assuming an increased risk of liability unless they take specific steps to reduce the risk. In addition, churches probably will find it increasingly difficult to obtain insurance for these vehicles in the future. Here are two options that church leaders can consider:

Option #1.Get rid of 15-passenger vans and replace them with small school buses or other vehicles.

Option #2.Keep 15-passenger vans, either permanently or temporarily (until they can be replaced with small school buses), but strictly comply with all 10 recommendations made by the NHTSA in its safety advisory. This means, for example, that a 15-passenger van will never have more than nine occupants (including the driver).

There are many reasons why church leaders may prefer option #1, including the following:

Example. A church owns a 5-year-old 15-passenger van with an odometer reading of 80,000 miles. The van has the original tires, which are dangerously worn. The church board approves the use of the van for an overnight trip by the youth group. The youth pastor is the designated driver for the trip, and the van is loaded with 14 teenagers. Because there is no room to store luggage, the van roof is used for storage. In addition, the van pulls a large trailer. At 4 a.m., while the van is maintaining a speed of 70 miles per hour in a rain shower, the back wheels hydroplane and drop off the road. When the youth pastor attempts to drive the van back onto the road by jerking the steering wheel, he loses control and the van rolls over, killing 5 occupants. Some of the victims’ parents sue the church. Under these circumstances, it is possible that a court would conclude that the actions of the church were negligent. But, it is also possible that a court would conclude that the church—and church board—were grossly negligent as a result of their disregard of the NHTSA safety advisory and its recommendations. A finding of gross negligence is a very serious risk since it would expose the church to "punitive damages" that are not covered under its liability insurance policy. In addition, the members of the church board can be personally liable for their gross negligence. While state and federal laws provide uncompensated board members of nonprofit organizations with limited immunity from liability, these laws do not protect against gross negligence.

Need More Information?

I have prepared a special report addressing the legal issues associated with the use of church vans. These concerns include the safety issues addressed in this article along with the use of church vans as "school buses" and the use of vans across state lines. You can order the special report by calling toll-free 1-800-222-1840. Ask for the special report on church vans.


Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA, is an attorney and CPA. He serves as legal counsel to the Assemblies of God, and is editorof the Church Law & Tax Report newsletter. He has written over 50books on church legal and tax issues, including the newly released third edition to Pastor, Church & Law. This article is based on an article that appeared in his Church Law & Tax Report newsletter.

 

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