In november the National Transportation Safety Board expressed concerns about the safety of vehicles that many church youth groups depend on: 15-passenger vans. The Board called for federal regulators and automakers to add electronic stability control systems to the vehicles. It also asked regulators to expand rollover ratings so that the vans will receive the same government testing as other passenger vehicles.

Three days later, a Texas lawyer who had represented victims of a May 2001 van accident told the NTSB of evidence that DaimlerChrysler has known for seven years that its Dodge vans are unstable during tire failures and other emergencies.

Then Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, jumped in, calling automakers to also install two additional rear wheels and to reinforce the vans' bodies and roofs. Federal regulators should ban the sale of the vans until the changes are made, said Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook, a former federal highway safety executive. The problem, she notes, is that the large vans were initially created to haul cargo, not passengers. "They know these vehicles are not safe, yet they keep selling them," she told The New York Times.

There is clear cause for concern. Public Citizen says 864 riders in 15-passenger vans were killed in accidents between 1990 and 2000. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—the agency empowered with requiring vehicle changes—says the blame cast on the automakers is exaggerated. "We have said consistently that we don't feel this is a vehicle problem," a spokeswoman told the Times. "We don't believe these vehicles are inherently dangerous. The majority of the fatalities … result from a combination of driver inexperience and failure to wear seat belts." (The agency also puts the death toll a bit lower, at 558 in the ten-year span.)

While the advocates, agencies, and automakers debate how to make the vans safer (and we applaud efforts to make them safer), churches don't have to wait. Safety experts are already suggesting ways to protect people now.

The most obvious is to insist that every passenger, without exception, buckle up. Although 15-passenger vans are much more likely to roll over in an accident, 92 percent of those wearing their seat belts survived single-vehicle rollovers in such vans during the past decade. Passengers not wearing their seat belts had only a 23 percent chance of survival. The NHTSA estimates that those wearing seat belts are 75 percent less likely to be killed in a van rollover.

Churches must also insist on formal training for all drivers of 15-passenger vans. Many local colleges offer one-day courses, as do some insurance companies. Drivers should always inspect their tires before driving, refuse to drive when tired, avoid icy and wet roads, and use particular care on rural roads, which in an emergency can make even the most defensive driver seem like Jehu.

"If you have a trained driver and people who are wearing seat belts, they are perfectly safe," an NTSB spokesman told The Denver Post. Perfectly safe? All the same, here are some other good suggestions from the experts: Fill front seats first. Never load items on the van's roof. Remove the back seat, and don't fill the vans (think of them as 10-passenger vans in a 15-passenger body).

Also, consider retrofitting your church van. Public Citizen estimates that adding dual wheels to the rear axle of a van will cost between $300 and $400. Mechanics contacted by CT put the estimate between $1,800 and $8,000. But the potential alternative may be far costlier.

If we are to avoid doing things to make "little ones stumble," how much more are we obligated to take steps to protect their lives?

Related Elsewhere

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has repeatedly warned of the risks of rollover in 15-passenger vans. A copy of the NHTSA analysis of the rollover characteristics of 15-passenger vans is online. The NHTSA has also issued advice on reducing the risk.

Previous articles and press releases on rollover danger include:

Danger Vans | With more than 10 riders, 15-passenger vans have a 35.4 percent chance of roll over in a crash. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Packed vans have higher risk of rollovers | In a rarely issued consumer advisory, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that the 15-passenger vans be operated only by experienced drivers. (USA Today, April 9, 2002)
Van Safety Update | A summary of recent precedent-setting court rulings and legislative acts affecting churches. (Your Church, Sept./Oct., 2001)

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