Managing specialty vehicle risks

Staying safe in 15-passenger vans

  • Operation of nine- to 15-passenger vans is regulated by the federal government only for vehicles that operate in interstate commerce for direct compensation.
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Administration amended regulations for nine- to 15-passenger vehicles in February 2010.
  • For-hire motor carriers are financially responsibile for certain requirements, and must meet operating authority requirements regardless of if they have nonprofit status.
  • Cost continues to deter some private organizations and universities from retrofitting safety features in vans or purchasing newer models of passenger vehicles with more safety features.

By Deidre Bello, associate editor

Last September, a 15-passenger van blew a tire and rolled over into a median along the New York State Thruway. Several passengers were ejected during the crash, in which six people died and eight others were injured. Less than a month later, a similar crash involving a 15-passenger church van killed four people and injured 15 near Blakely, GA. These fatal crashes have re-ignited safety advocates’ efforts to educate drivers about the potential dangers of operating specialty vehicles.

In February 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration amended a regulation to improve safety oversight of certain van operators. The changes came in anticipation of a new system for monitoring the safety performance of motor carriers and commercial motor vehicle drivers – Compliance, Safety, Accountability (formerly known as Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010). The rule applies to motor carriers operating CMVs used to transport between nine and 15 passengers (including the driver) in interstate commerce for direct compensation.

Some safety advocates claim more needs to be done to address oversight of operators not under the jurisdiction of the federal government and that pose a higher crash risk by driving older vans. These organizations use nine- to 15-passenger vans to transport school sports teams, vanpools and church groups, to name a few.
An ‘inherently dangerous’ vehicle

Concern about safety oversight of 15-passenger vans emerged in the 1990s. Between 1994 and 2004, 1,512 fatal crashes involving 15-passenger vehicles occurred, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. After a 2001 fatal rollover crash near Henrietta, TX, and an incident involving an overturned 15-passenger van in North Carolina, NTSB called for more oversight of nine- to 15-passenger vans, as well as design improvements to prevent crash risks.

Findings from a 2002 NTSB study showed that although 15-passenger vans are involved in a proportionate number of fatal crashes when compared with other passenger vehicles, the rollover rate for fully loaded or nearly loaded 15-passenger vans is about 3 times the rollover rate of vans with fewer than five passengers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has conducted additional research on rollover risk. Studies show crashes involving 15-passenger vans frequently are a result of the vehicle’s higher center of gravity.

Victor S. Parra, president and CEO of the Alexandria, VA-based United Motorcoach Association, said the vehicle’s design makes it inherently unstable. “Most of the people driving these vehicles are unaware of this potential problem,” he said.

Factors that contribute to instability include overloading, tire deterioration leading to a blowout and driver handling. Lack of safety features in the event of a rollover and low safety belt use also contributed to the severity of injuries.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studies found the driver death rate in 15-passenger vans is lower than in other passenger vehicles, but the occupant death rate is higher. An analysis of crash statistics from 2004 to 2008 showed 40 driver deaths per million occurred in registered 15-passenger vans during that period. (The driver death rate was 91 for all other passenger vehicles combined.) Still, the death rate for all occupants was higher for 15-passenger vans compared with other passenger vehicles – 175 compared with 130 deaths per million registered vehicles.

In the aftermath of the fatal New York and Georgia crashes, NHTSA in October reissued an advisory for anyone operating a 15-passenger van. NHTSA first issued the safety advisory in April 2001.

Federal driver requirements and CSA

FMCSA’s regulation governing CMVs used to transport nine to 15 passengers in interstate commerce for direct compensation was amended in February 2010 and now applies regardless of distance traveled. Under the rule, CMVs that meet that criteria are subject to requirements that include safety fitness qualifications; maintaining records to document compliance; new entrant safety assurance procedures; and general prohibitions against use of alcohol, drugs and other substances while operating a CMV.

Parra said his organization is pleased the vehicles now are held to the same standard as the motorcoach industry. “The thing I liked about it – and obviously there are things that need some enhancements – is it’s really designed to go after the companies that are truly problematic and intervene before problems occur,” he said, adding that the addition of regulations for small van drivers applied under the CSA program will create a more responsible driver.

Regulations that apply under 49 CFR
Motor carriers operating commercial motor vehicles designed or used to transport ...

FMCSA officials estimate 558 fatal crashes and 2,234 injury crashes occur each year in nine- and 15-passenger vans. Under the FMCSA rule, motor carriers that operate CMVs used to transport between nine and 15 passengers for direct compensation also must meet financial responsibility and operating authority requirements. Federal regulations also require motor carriers to be subject to compliance reviews and receive safety ratings. Those that receive an “unsatisfactory” safety rating will be prohibited from operating CMVs to transport passengers in interstate commerce.

According to the FMCSA regulation, motor carriers operating vehicles used to transport nine to 15 passengers not for direct compensation, regardless of the distance traveled, are required to file a motor carrier identification report, mark their vehicles with their motor carrier identification number and maintain an accident register.

When asked what NHTSA could do to improve the design of the vehicles, Parra suggested adding requirements for dual tires and retrofitting vans with electronic stability control. However, due to cost issues, that option is not always feasible. NHTSA also could improve roof crush standards, require improved window design standards, and upgrade safety belt standards to require load limiters and slack adjusters, which could prevent passengers from being partially ejected in a rollover, he said. Meanwhile, FMCSA could extend commercial driver’s license requirements for vehicles for hire, he added.

In the past decade, 80 percent of people killed in rollover crashes in 15-passenger vans were unbelted, according to NHTSA. The administration advises organizations that own 15-passenger vans to have a written safety belt policy. 

In 2001, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety pushed for a drug testing requirement for small passenger-carrying CMVs – a request that still has not been fulfilled. FMCSA stated in its ruling that it will not make CDL and controlled substances and alcohol testing requirements applicable to operators of small passenger-carrying CMVs because they do not fit the statutory definition of a CMV used for those programs. As a result, the passenger-carrying threshold for CDL and controlled substance and alcohol testing requirements remains at 16 passengers (including the driver).

Henry Jasny, general counsel for Washington-based AHAS, said FMCSA’s regulation only went partway in dealing with safety issues for vans because it does not cover vans owned by individuals or organizations that operate vanpools and receive indirect compensation. “We think there’s still a problem in terms of the operation of the vehicle,” he said, adding that most of the 15-passenger vans registered today are owned or leased by church groups or private organizations and individuals. 

Although NHTSA issued an advisory with safety tips and commonsense guidance, most of the people who operate the vehicles have not seen the advisory, Jasny said. “The problem with giving them commonsense tips is all well and good until they get in a critical situation while driving.”

Organizations and institutions

Transporting children
In 2005, federal law made it illegal for schools or school systems to purchase or lease a new 15-passenger van if it will be used significantly by, or on behalf of, the school system to transport preschool and elementary school-aged children to or from school or an event related to school.

The first thing any organization or private owner who plans to operate a nine- to 15-passenger van should ask why a van of that size is necessary and is it practical, said James Solomon, director of Program Development and Training for the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driving Courses. People should know the risks associated with these vans because of their higher center of gravity, and that operation of the van may fall under CDL regulations – not by weight but by the number of passengers, Solomon said.

Organizations or private owners should know what state laws apply to the operation of these vans, he said. Similar to federal requirements for drivers of 15-passenger vehicles, private owners and nonprofit organizations that operate these vehicles should set standards for driver hiring and ensure drivers are skilled, trained and experienced, and have a safe driving record, according to Solomon.

At the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, marine biology professors and other university staff and students often use the vans for trips to the coast 10 miles away, said Rita Gordon, director of auxiliary services at the university. Operators of 15-passenger vans are required to take a three-hour vehicle safety course and pass a test administered by university police. Drivers also must sign a 15-passenger van advisory form stating they will abide by the policies of the UNCW Motor Fleet Office, Gordon said. She added that she is aware of the crash risks of driving 15-passenger vans, but said the university has an extensive driver training, maintenance and operation policy in place.

“I don’t want to be telling parents there was an accident and that I’m sorry,” Gordon said. “I want to do everything in my power to make sure the folks operating our vehicles are fully trained and fully aware of how to operate them properly.”

UNCW’s policy requires a minimum of five years of driving experience and prohibits drivers from operating beyond an eight-hour limit, using cell phones or text messaging while driving, and consuming alcohol. It also limits the number of passengers (no more than 10 or fewer than five).

Gordon said other organizations and universities that are unable to purchase newer passenger vehicles or phase 15-passenger vans out of their fleet should have a similar policy that includes background checks with their local police department, passenger safety education on loading and maintenance checks with special emphasis on tire pressure.

Instead of building a fleet with 15-passenger vans, church groups and other private organizations should rent or buy a small school bus, Jasny said. Although it may not have the best fuel mileage, “school buses are built to better safety standards,” he said.

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