On the way to extinction
November 22 2002 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

On the way to extinction | Friday, Nov 22, 2002

Friday, Nov 22, 2002

On the way to extinction

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor

Will the ubiquitous 15-passenger church van soon go the way of the dinosaur? Safety advocates and industry officials across the country are advising churches to forsake the vehicles commonly used to transport children, youth, senior adults and mission trip participants.

Safety issues

GuideOne, the church insurer endorsed by the Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), hopes churches will move away from using vans. "We encourage our policyholders to strongly consider other transportation options," the company said in a recent statement. "GuideOne believes 15-passenger vans to be inherently unsafe."

While the company still covers 15-passenger vans already in its system, it has stopped writing new policies for the large vans. To extend coverage, GuideOne also requires all drivers to have a commercial driver's license, a chauffeur's license, or to pass a defensive driver's course.

GuideOne alone insures more than 50,000 churches nationwide. Of those, about 10,000 maintain policies on one or more 15-passenger vans.

Church Mutual insures more than 75,000 churches and church-related entities. Its representatives also encourage churches to consider purchasing buses instead of vans.

Jerry Remus, North Carolina sales representative for the Carpenter Bus Company, said, "There are 300,000 vans out there that need to be replaced, and 100,000 of them belong to churches."

The Carpenter Bus Company, located in Franklin, Tenn., carries the endorsement of the SBC's LifeWay Christian Resources.

"I'd like to sell one of our buses to every school and church," said Barney Smith, vice president of Palmetto Bus Sales in Columbia, S.C., "but I don't care who people buy a bus from - they need to get out of vans and into buses."

Smith said school buses are designed to stricter safety standards, and are the safest mode of transportation available when measured by deaths per passenger mile traveled - safer than automobiles, airplanes or passenger trains.

"By design," Smith said, "a 15-passenger vehicle is classified as a cargo van - they are a huge, huge risk."

Loading a van with passengers who are elevated from the floor raises the vehicle's center of gravity and the likelihood of a rollover if the driver loses control. The heavier the passenger load, the greater the risk.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published research showing that, in single-vehicle accidents, the rollover rate for 15-passenger vans nearly triples when the vans are loaded with 10 or more occupants as compared to fewer than five occupants.

Because the body of a 15-passenger van extends well beyond the rear axle, it is prone to sway during quick maneuvers, especially when towing a trailer - as traveling church groups often do.

"The big difference between 15-passenger vans and buses is that buses are designed and made specifically to pass government safety tests for passenger vehicles," says GuideOne. "Buses generally are encased in a steel cage, have stronger flooring, specially designed seating with better collapse and impact absorption and better rollover protection."

Vans do not have side bar protection, meaning passengers face greater risk of injury from side-impact collisions, according to GuideOne.

On the other hand, the greatest determining factor in whether occupants in rollover crashes live or die is the use of seatbelts.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, 80 percent of people killed in van rollover crashes in the last 10 years were not wearing safety belts. Passengers who wear seatbelts in 15-passenger vans are 75 percent less likely to be killed in a rollover crash than people who don't.

Ford Motor Company, manufacturer of the popular Econoline 15-passenger van, maintains the vehicles are "very safe." However, Ford also says it agrees with government recommendations that the vehicles be operated only by trained drivers and that all passengers should wear seat belts.

An investigation by CBS News revealed at least 424 people nationwide have been killed and hundreds seriously injured in rollovers of the vans since 1990.

Liability issues

Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte is in the process of selling its 15-passenger van and buying a 27-passenger bus. "Insurance people on our administration committee advised us that increasing regulation of 15-passenger vans was inevitable," said co-pastor Russ Dean.

Several highly publicized accidents involving 15-passenger vans were raising important liability questions, his committee advised.

"We also were aware that it is technically illegal for a 15-passenger van to pick up children from school," said Dean.

So, when the church needed more capacity for the van that has been used primarily by its child development center, it decided to invest in a larger bus rather than adding another van.

Peninsula Baptist Church in Mooresville also invested in a new bus recently. The church is still using its two 15-passenger vans, said business administrator Sam Ellis, but with greater restrictions. Drivers are required to have a commercial driver's license or pass an online driving course offered by GuideOne. Drivers are also advised to distribute weight carefully in the vans, and to drive carefully.

In Siler City, Love's Creek Baptist Church just took delivery of a new 25-passenger bus. Pastor Roy Helms said safety and liability issues figured into the church's decision to move from a van to a bus. The bus is also easier for children and senior adults to board, he said. The church's insurer, Church Mutual, encouraged the purchase of a bus because of the safety factor, he said.

Legal issues

In South Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana, it is against the law for church and school groups to purchase 15-passenger vans for transporting people. The South Carolina legislation is called "Jacob's Law," named for a child who was killed in a 15-passenger van collision during a summer outing. The law took effect July 1, 2000, though vans already in use were "grandfathered" until July 1, 2006.

Smith notes that an often-ignored federal law was enacted in 1974 prohibiting the sale of 15-passenger vans for the purpose of transporting school-age children to and from school or for school-related events. Every Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge 15-passenger van has a plate inside the door that says it should not be used as a school bus, he said.

Financial issues

The current situation creates quite a quandary for churches that don't want to operate vehicles that may be unsafe, but have large sums of money invested in vans that are increasingly hard to sell.

Remus said Carpenter Bus Sales encourages churches to remove all but one of the bench seats and market the vans to the service industry, as his company does with trade-ins.

Moving from a rapidly depreciating van to a bus can be an expensive proposition, but insurance analysts say church leaders must question whether they can afford the liability of not making the shift. Bus salesmen say churches can actually save money by operating one bus instead of multiple vans.

New 15-passenger vans typically cost between $26,000 and $30,000.

A well-equipped 15-passenger mini-bus would cost from $10,000 to $12,000 more, according to estimates obtained by the Recorder. Stepping up to a 25-passenger vehicle adds about $10,000 more to the cost.

Many churches making the switch choose to invest more and get greater seating capacity, said Ken McDowell, N.C. sales representative for Interstate Transportation Equipment, which has an office in High Point.

Licensing issues

Moving from a 15-passenger van to a larger bus raises another issue for churches: N.C. law requires drivers of vehicles that carry more than 15 passengers to have a Class B commercial driver's license, according to Sgt. Johnny Blackman of the N.C. Highway Patrol.

Drivers must pass a special examination and pay a higher fee for such licenses. Since most church buses do not have air brakes, however, potential drivers are not required to pass that portion of the test.

The added requirement can be extra trouble, but is not necessarily a negative, say some industry insiders. While limiting the available drivers may raise the level of inconvenience to a church, it also has the potential of raising the safety factor by limiting driving duties to more qualified drivers.

Learning more

Palmetto Bus Sales offers a quick link to more safety information and government regulations through its Web site (www.palmettobussales.com). Click on "School Bus Certified vs. Non-conforming Vans" from the site's homepage for more information and additional links. GuideOne also has helpful information and safety links, including an online defensive driving course, at www.guideone.com: click on "15-Passenger Van Safety Concerns."

(EDITOR'S NOTE: George Henson contributed to this article.)

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11/22/2002 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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