When small groups of students need transportation, large-size vans can be a more affordable choice than big yellow school buses. But those savings could come at a cost: Federal transportation-safety officials are warning that when heavily loaded, 15-passenger vans run a substantial risk of rolling over.
Vans that size carrying 10 or more people have a rollover rate more than three times higher than the rate of those that have five or fewer people aboard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement issued April 9. As the number of passengers increases, the vans’ center of gravity moves up and to the rear, making rollover more likely, NHTSA officials said.
The agency urged groups that use such vans to employ drivers who are experienced at operating large vans, and that they require riders to wear seat belts.
“For public schools, we think there are much safer modes of transportation available: school buses,” said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.
Under federal law, dealers can be prosecuted for selling 15-passenger vans for use for K-12 students. But many such sales go unnoticed, Mr. Tyson said, and the law applies only to dealers—not to those who buy the vehicles.
No prohibition governs their sale for use for postsecondary students. Last year, five college athletes died in five accidents in 15-passenger vans. Between 1993 and the end of 1999, 126 fatalities resulted from rollovers of such vans nationwide, Mr. Tyson said.
Two weeks ago, two of the vans—one carrying members of Utah State University’s men’s volleyball team and another carrying an Elko, Nev., church youth group—skidded in snowy conditions and rolled over. Thirteen people were injured.
Economics vs. Safety
The Denver school district owns five 12- or 15-passenger vans that teachers can rent for student trips, said Bob Morris, the manager of safety and training for the 71,000-student district’s transportation department. At $45 for each rental, they are easier on the wallet than a school bus, which rents for $80 or more, he said.
But the district is acutely aware of the safety issues, and officials are handing out articles about the NHTSA warning to those who rent the vans, he said. The district has not moved to eliminate the use of the vans, but Mr. Morris said he would favor such a move.
In Virginia, the Fairfax County school district owns 15-passenger vans, but uses them only to transport adults, said Tim Parker, the assistant director of transportation for the 160,000-student district. State regulations require schools to use vans that seat 10 or fewer when transporting students, he said.
Mr. Tyson said that while he is familiar with the financial issues around renting full-size buses for small groups, “at a certain point, there are things other than economics that need to be considered.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Agency Issues Warning on Rollover Risk for Large Vans