Update on 15-Passenger Vans

On April 15th, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
reissued a cautionary warning to users of fifteen-passenger vans. The
agency notified consumers of an increased rollover risk under certain
conditions. A similar warning was issued in May of 2001, when the NHTSA
warned motorists that 15-passenger vans with ten or more occupants are
three times as likely to roll over in crashes than 15-passenger vans that
are lightly loaded.

Despite the agency’s efforts last year to warn the public about the vehicles’
handling characteristics, accidents involving 15-passenger vans have continued.
Most recently in April 2002, a 15-passenger van carrying day-care clients
drifted off a Memphis interstate into a highway overpass, killing four
young passengers. While alleged drug usage by the driver appears to be
an issue in this accident, public and media focus on the use of these
large vans is intense.

Federal Regulations

While the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act prohibits the
sale or lease of any new vehicle with a capacity of more than 10 to a
school or school district, many schools still utilize 15-passenger vans
by purchasing them used. There has been no federal action to ban the use
of these vans by camps, youth programs, or religious organizations.

However, some states have taken action against the use of 15-passenger
vans for commercial or interstate transportation of children. Camps should
check with the Department of Transportation in their state, or in states
through which they must travel, to ascertain current regulations.

Safety Conditions

Automobile experts claim vans have suspensions that raise them high above
the road, and as a result, they have a very high center of gravity. In
addition, many 15-passenger vans are on the same wheelbase as 12-passenger
vans. This combination creates a vehicle that does not handle as well
as a car and can be unsafe in certain conditions, particularly with an
inexperienced driver. Because of these characteristics, in-vehicle training,
which includes driving the vehicle both loaded and unloaded, is essential
for drivers of these vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is
investigating the Memphis accident, has urged states to stop schools from
using 15-passenger vans. In an effort to prevent deaths and injuries during
this summer’s heavy driving season, the head of the NHTSA recently held
a news conference to remind people that vans should be operated only by
trained and experienced drivers. The NHTSA also encourages all van occupants
to wear seat belts. These recommendations were further underscored by
a 60 Minutes II exposé on vans, which aired on CBS April 2002.

Pending Action

Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would
like to take additional action to ensure restricted use of 15-passenger
vans, its jurisdiction is limited, thus encouraging states to review the
vehicles’ use. In addition to issuing a consumer advisory, the NHTSA is
considering guidelines to require the vans to pass more-stringent rollover
tests, which NHTSA is currently working to devise.

Congress is considering H.R. 3296, introduced by Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO),
a bill regarding the use of nonconforming vans in public schools. H.R.
3296 would prohibit the purchase, rent, or lease, of a vehicle for use
as a school bus that does not comply with the motor vehicle safety standards
that currently apply to school buses. The legislation would essentially
close the loophole allowing schools to purchase used vehicles. In Udall’s
proposal, a “school bus” is defined as any vehicle that transports more
than eleven students. If passed, H.R. 3296 would ensure that all 15-passenger
vans used to transport students pass a national safety test. The proposed
legislation was referred to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade
and Consumer Protection in late December 2001, although a hearing has
not yet been scheduled.

At a local level, 29 states have taken action by ruling school districts
cannot use nonconforming buses to transport children, and most other states
have legislation pending. In addition, in Colorado, the largest insurer
for public schools will stop covering 15-passenger vans purchased after
June, and is gradually phasing out coverage of these vans over the next
five years.

What Should Camps Do?

The American Camping Association strongly encourages its members to fully
evaluate transportation programs. While it may be unreasonable to immediately
replace 15-passenger vans now in use, all camps can take steps toward
risk reduction. Such steps may include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Require adequate in-vehicle training for drivers of 15-passenger vans
    including opportunity to drive the vehicle both partially and fully
  • Plan to use experienced drivers rather than rotating driving responsibilities
    among many staff;
  • Limit the amount of weight placed in the vehicle and place weight
    as far forward in the vehicle as possible;
  • Remember that the risk of rollover increases dramatically as the number
    of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than ten;
  • Never exceed fifteen passengers in these vehicles;
  • Always require seat belts to ensure camper safety (Eighty percent
    of those who died in van rollovers were not wearing seat belts!)
  • Remember that the risk of a rollover crash is greatly increased when
    load is placed on the roof of the van.

Driver Tips

  • Drivers must maintain a safe speed, and should be well-rested.
  • Drivers must be especially cautious on curved roads and must maintain
    safe speeds to avoid running off the road.
  • Train drivers in emergency maneuvers. For example, if the van’s wheels
    drop off the roadway, gradually reduce speed and steer back onto the
    roadway when it is safe to do so. Avoid sudden turns of the wheel.
  • Make sure the van’s tires are properly inflated and the tread is not
    worn down.
  • When the van is not full, require passengers to sit in seats that
    are in front of the rear axle.
  • Remember that these longer, wider vehicles do not respond as well
    to abrupt steering maneuvers and require additional braking time.

ACA is collecting additional data on the van issue and on the availability
of driver training programs camps can access. Check ACA’s Web site for
updates: www.ACAcamps.org/publicpolicy.
In the meantime, we urge camps to develop key messages about camp safety
in transportation and share them with parents. If you haven’t already
done so, establish a five-year plan for transportation that will address
vehicle use, driver training, and risk reduction to provide the safest
possible transportation for campers and staff.

Originally published in the 2002 Spring issue
of The CampLine.