12- and 15-Passenger Vans

Risks of 12 and 15-passenger vans

The use of 15-passenger vans to transport athletic participants has come under scrutiny because of the documented rollover risks and the associated catastrophic liability potential resulting from serious injuries or deaths to multiple passengers.

The National Safety Transportation Board examined single vehicle crash data and issued multiple reports and warnings in 2012, 2013, and 2018. These later advisories are toned down from earlier warnings but concerns remain even though manufacturers tout recent safety enhancements for later models. The warnings appear to be having a positive impact as reported deaths from 15 passenger accidents have decreased significantly.

To follow is a summary of the most recent 2018 NHTSA advisory:

  • Never allow more than 15-passengers.
  • When the van is not full, always load passengers in seats from front to back and in front of rear axle.
  • Cargo should never be placed on the roof and should be placed forward of the rear axle.
  • All drivers should be licensed, experienced and should operate these vehicles on a regular basis.  A commercial drivers license is preferred.
  • Drivers should be well rested and should limit drive time to 8 hours a day.
  • Drivers should never use smart phones while driving and should limit conversation with passengers.
  • All passengers should wear seat belts. The majority of all deaths have occurred to passengers who were not buckled up and who were thrown from the van.  Seat belts and buckles should be regularly inspected and repaired/replaced as needed.
  • Tires should be inspected before every trip for proper inflation and signs of wear and tear. See owner’s manual and door pillar for proper inflation information.
  • Spare tires should not be used as replacements and many manufacturers recommend that tires over 10 years old not be used.  The manufacture date of a tire can be identified by the last 4 digits of the TIN of the tire’s sidewall.

To follow is a summary from prior NHTSA warnings and other risk management sources:

  • When a 15 passenger van is loaded with 10 or more occupants, it is three times as likely to rollover as compared with less than 10 occupants.
  • The rollover propensity is greatly increased at speeds greater than 50 mph and on curved roads.
  • The standard design of the 15-passenger van does not meet the structural reinforcement requirements of passenger cars or school buses in the area behind the driver’s seat.
  • The van should be regularly maintained.  Steering and inspection components should be inspected per manufacturer’s guidelines; and new tires must be properly sized and load rated.
  • Federal law prohibits the sale of 15-passenger vans for school related transportation of high school and younger students. See detailed explanation.
  • Many state laws prohibit the use of 15-passenger vans to transport public high school students to and from school and to and from school related events. See state by state chart on law status.
  • Additional research indicates that 12-passenger vans don’t fare much better and some SUV’s pose significant rollover risks.
  • Safecar.gov offers additional information on van safety.

In response to these concerns, it is recommended that sports organizations that transport high school aged and younger children should adopt the following regulations:

  1. Always require parents to transport their children whenever feasible.
  2. For those sports organizations that rent or borrow their vehicles, 15-passenger and 12-passenger vans should never be used and better substitution vehicles include 7 passenger mini vans, passenger cars, or school buses which have a much lower rollover propensity at higher occupant loads.
  3. For those sports organizations that already own 12- and 15-passenger vans, such vans should be replaced with safer alternatives such as mini vans or school buses as soon as feasible.

If a sports organization is going to use a 15 or 12 passenger van to transport participants despite the warnings, the following precautions should be followed:

  1. Always use a trained, experienced driver who is not a student and who regularly drives these types of vehicles.  Although the driver of a 15 or 12 passenger van is not required to have a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), such driver should understand and be familiar with the handling characteristics of a fully loaded van. The driver should be well rested and attentive and not under the influence of drugs. A motor vehicle record (MVR) should be run on all drivers to make sure that they have no more than two minor violations in the prior three years and no major offenses in the prior five years such as a DUI or reckless driving offense.
  2. Drivers should be aware of the following conditions that most often result in rollovers:
    • The van goes off a rural road and hits a ditch, embankment, or soft soil.
    • The driver is fatigued, falls asleep at the wheel, or is driving too fast for conditions. Vans traveling at high speeds where the driver loses control often slide sideways off the road.
    • The driver over-corrects the steering as a panic reaction to an emergency or to a wheel that leaves the pavement.
    • The driver is distracted by a smart phone or conversation with passengers.
  3. Insist that all occupants wear safety belts for the entire duration of the trip.  An unrestrained 15 passenger van occupant involved in a single vehicle crash is about four times as likely to be killed as a restrained occupant.
  4. If possible, move passengers and cargo forward of the rear axle and avoid placing loads on the roof.
  5. Check tires before any trip to make sure that they are properly inflated and not excessively worn. The pressure of each tire should be checked when “cold” and set to the recommended inflation pressure as specified on the vehicle placard in the owner’s manual. It may be surprising to many that the typical recommended pressure for the rear tires can be much higher than for the front tires. Vans should always be equipped with a tire gauge.  Avoid using a spare tire that is over 10 years old.
  6. Later model 15-passenger vans with electronic stabilization control (ESC) and tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) are safer than older models.  ESC became a standard feature on all 15-passenger vans manufactured after 09/01/2011.

Further Concerns

Under most state laws, the sports organization can be sued along with the owner and driver of the vehicle whenever there is an auto accident resulting in injuries. Many insurance carriers that provide Non Owned/Hired Auto Liability insurance for sports organizations exclude coverage for lawsuits arising out of the use of vehicles with a capacity that exceeds a specified number of passengers or the transportation of participants. You need to be aware if your insurance policy contains these exclusions.

Some sports organizations transfer the risk of group transportation by hiring a charter bus service.  Before hiring a charter bus, always request their DOT number and go online to confirm that their safety rating is satisfactory and that they carry liability insurance limits of at least $5,000,000.

by John M. Sadler, JD, CIC
Member, USA Baseball Medical & Safety Advisory Committee
(Revised March 08, 2019)