As the upcoming season approaches, my mind goes back to the many Christmas sights and sounds of the places I’ve visited in the thirty-seven years I have been involved with bus sales. At just about all of them, there have been groups of all types such as church groups, tour groups, school, day care, etc., loading onto or exiting different types of buses.
When I see school groups traveling in a 15-passenger van or a day care in a church-type (people mover) bus or van, it makes me wonder if the passengers know the dangers or the owners know the liability of using a vehicle for a purpose it was not intended for.
Below are excerpts from an article titled “Are church ignoring warnings about using 15-passenger vans?; Knowing warnings, but not addressing problems called ‘gross negligence'”, written by Robert Grant, Director of Church Administration & Buildings, SCBC and published in The Baptist COURIER on May 8, 2003.
“Many of the Baptist churches in South Carolina have 15-passenger vans, some of which pose serious safety and liability risks.
According to Richard Hammar in Church Law & Tax Report, August 2002, these vans, used to transport children and adults on church-related trips, have risks associated with the design and original purpose of the vehicles. Vans were originally designed to transport cargo, not people, and they lack the many safety features required on smaller vehicles, such as mini-vans, and larger school buses.
Hammer continues in his article to emphasize that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released a safety advisory warning of the “rollover” rate of the 15-passenger vans increase nearly seven times when driven with 15 occupants. The rate drops significantly with 10 passengers, from a seven-times-greater chance to only three. The NHTSA analysis revealed that loads to capacity of 15-passenger vans cause the center of gravity to shift forward and upward, increasing the rollover likelihood.
There have been many warnings issued by conference leaders on legal issues, articles, and documents from attorneys and insurance companies.” Grant goes on to say that “this writer continues to see churches filling their 15-passenger vans to capacity without regard to these warnings. Many churches are hiding the issue behind their insurance coverage, saying they have met all of their driver requirements. Many crashes and turnovers could be contributed to driver error; however, the vehicle design is much more a factor in the safety use of vans.
Churches knowing about the warnings and not creating policies to correct the problems are entering ‘gross negligence’ – avoiding the facts and relying on their insurance to cover any accident. Churches that continue to use 15-passenger vans to transport people are assuming increased risk of liability. According to Hammar, ‘If a court concludes that a church’s use of a 15-passenger van amounts to ‘gross negligence’, then the church may be assessed punitive damage (which is not covered under its general liability insurance policy) and the members of the church board may be personally liable.’
NHTSA references for South Carolina churches regarding vans:
– Create policies for van use and maintenance
– Make sure every use of vans is approved by policy and noted as an approved church activity on the general church calendar.
Because of the risks, churches probably will find it increasingly difficult to obtain insurance for these vehicles in the future.
Two options to consider:
1. Get rid of the 15-passenger vans and replace them with small school buses or other safety-approved transport vehicles. When getting rid of or selling a van, include in the bill of sale a disclaimer that the van is not being sold to transport people, but for carrying cargo only. If this can’t be signed, don’t sell.
2. Keep 15-passenger vans and accept the legal liabilities with the risk and either permanently or temporarily (until they can be replaced with small school buses), but strictly comply with codes of the NHTSA terms recommendation in their safety advisories.
For best results:
-Sell all 15-passenger vans.
-Purchase mini-bus with school bus rating standards and use CDL drivers where applicable.
– Use commercial bus companies when sponsoring out-of-state trips or large groups (20-plus)”
A tragedy at any time of year can be devastating to families and organizations, but at Christmas time traffic deaths of people you care for seems especially horrendous. Follow the simple steps above and rest assured that your loved ones are in safe hands.