The nation was shocked in March 2016 by the horrific crash in Texas involving a church van and a pick-up truck that left 13 passengers in the van dead and two more seriously injured. The driver of the truck was later found to have a variety of prescription drugs as well as marijuana in his system when he veered into the oncoming lane.
While the driver of the passenger van wasn't at fault, this tragedy highlights some of the dangers inherent in large passenger-hauling vans. Before renting one to transport a large group of people, learn more about the risks and steps you can take to make a trip in a passenger van as safe as possible.
What Makes These Vehicles Dangerous?
Large passenger vans like the Ford E350 involved in the Texas crash are designed with maximum carrying capacity in mind.
Many of them don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, and they're often purchased by churches and schools or rented for short-term use.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), these vehicles are at a higher risk of rollover than smaller vans and trucks. In fact, the chance of a rollover is significantly higher when carrying more than 10 passengers than when carrying fewer than five. Ford’s newer Transit van, the Chevrolet Express/GMC Savannah, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and the Nissan NV3500 are all 12-15 passenger vans with increased rollover risk.
Other Risk Factors With Large Passenger Vans
Even though these vans can carry up to 15 people, the driver isn't required to have a commercial driver’s license as a public bus driver would. Inexperienced drivers may not know how to properly control a large vehicle and may have difficulty staying focused while carrying many noisy and active passengers.
These vehicles are required to have seatbelts, but often only have lap belts in the back rows and passengers may not wear them because they believe the vehicle is safe due to its size. In the Texas church van crash, it's believed that most of the passengers were wearing lap belts, but that the belts weren't adequate to protect them in the car accident.
How to Make a Passenger Van Trip as Safe as Possible
NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are well aware of the risks associated with large passenger vans. They recommend taking the following steps to ensure your next group road trip is as safe as it can be:
- Check tire pressure. Whether you're renting a van temporarily or it's owned by a church or other organization, you can't be sure the tires are well-maintained and properly inflated. Check the tire pressure before you depart and make sure it's at the recommended level. Poor tire quality and low tire pressure can add to the risk of a rollover crash.
- Only use trained drivers. Even though it's not required by law, you want to make sure your driver is experienced with the vehicle. Ideally, if this is a church or camp vehicle, there's someone on staff with a commercial driver’s license. Drivers should get adequate sleep and should never use a handheld device behind the wheel.
- Don't speed. 15-passenger vans are long and are harder to maneuver quickly than an average car. These vehicles should never be driven above the posted speed limit and speed should be reduced in poor weather or on treacherous roads.
- Don't overload the vehicle. When all the seats are filled with passengers, it may be tempting to load cargo on the top of the van. However, this throws off the vehicle’s center of gravity and increases the chances of a rollover crash. Never carry more than the maximum number of passengers allowed, and check the manufacturer's guidelines for proper cargo capacity and storage.
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