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Reader feedback: How safe are our church vans?

Rescuers respond to a wreck that killed six people when a church van collided with a tractor-trailer in Woodbury, N.Y. (Photo by WNBC)

Neither case involved a Church of Christ, but two recent tragedies in which aging church vans blew tires raise questions about church vehicle safety and maintenance.
The most recent tragedy occurred this week in Georgia:

BLAKELY, Ga. – An aging church van headed to an out-of-state revival blew a tire on a highway and flipped repeatedly, ejecting all 19 people on board and killing the pastor, his daughter and two others, authorities said Monday.
A woman who survived told investigators that “everybody just flew out of the van,” said Early County coroner Todd Hunter.
“She said she remembered rolling, but didn’t know if she was rolling inside or outside of the van,” Hunter said.
In addition to those who died, 15 passengers were injured in the crash Sunday evening on U.S. 27 south of Blakely, said Gordy Wright, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol.

Last month, six people died in a New York church van crash. An investigator indicated that seat belts might have saved them:

Members of a small Bronx church gutted by a horrific highway accident gathered Sunday to mourn their bishop and friends – but did not question their loss.
“We know God never makes mistakes,” said Jay Goving of the Bronx, a close friend of Bishop Simon White.
White, 55; his wife, Zelda, 53, and four others died Saturday when their church van blew a tire on the New York State Thruway and flipped several times.
The eight other parishioners aboard the Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies van heading to a church banquet upstate were hospitalized.

In the past, Churches of Christ and Christian universities have grappled with van crashes, as reported here and here. In a 2004 op-ed piece for The Christian Chronicle, a Louisiana deacon offered tips for church leaders. My thanks to Chronicle assistant managing editor Erik Tryggestad for helping me find these links.
Questions for readers: How safe are the vans and other vehicles used by your congregation? What steps do you take to ensure that vehicles are safe and that everyone uses a seat belt? What advice do you have for churches in dealing with this issue?

  • Feedback
    The maintenance of these big vans is one reason we don’t own one but rent them from a local Ford dealer instead.
    Joshua Byrd
    October, 8 2010

    We have a deacon devoted solely to the church vans. And we don’t ever violate the law by putting more people in them than the rated capacity (or less). One of the recent accidents could have been less serious if they had not had too many people in the van. Besides being dangerous, it is illegal and, therefore, unscriptural.
    Tim O’Hearn
    October, 8 2010

    Like any other tools God gives us to bless us, vans are excellent people and stuff carriers when given respect to the capabilities and limitations. Underinflated tires, exhausted drivers as well as drivers who do not compensate for the sluggish response caused by fully-loaded vehicles will cause accidents. I have driven vans for a Joy Bus Minisry, youth group and my own family for over 25 years, sometimes under stressful conditions. I consider them as a blessing not a curse. But I do ask my peeps to buckle.
    Betty Fitzsimmons
    October, 8 2010

    I no longer reside in West Monroe, LA, but I am still as afraid of those vans as I ever was. I am glad to see my previous writings still have some life. I toyed with writing an article about van safety, but never got to do it.
    Regarding tribulations of church vans, I had a rear tire blow in one of ours deep in Mexico several years ago and thanks to God, we didn’t flip, but I’ll never forget it – it was some ride. I took care of the vans then and knew that the tires WERE inflated properly but that tire still blew. No one in that van that day will ever forget that one. God’s hand was with us and we knew it.
    We ultimately converted our ‘out of town’ vans to dual rear wheels, strange looking, but very safe and much more stable. It is the only way I would drive them and be responsible for the lives of people riding in them with me. I commend the Elders of my former congregation for recognizing the risks involved and fronting the costs to do the conversions. I believe it saved lives.
    I cringe when I see a fully loaded van on the highway with a soft rear tire, especially a left rear, barreling down the road at freeway speeds. I say a prayer for God’s hand for them.
    I am categorically against the “people mover” type of extended or oversize van. They are great for airport and rental car shuttles for which they were originally designed, but are in my opinion ‘death traps’ when used for over the road passenger service. There ought to be a law…
    Please be careful out there if you are involved with any kind of church transportation.
    Mike Watkins
    October, 8 2010

    The 15 and 18 passenger vans commonly used by churches are extremely dangerous! As a Paramedic I have personally worked some very tragic crashes involving these vehicles. Why were the passengers in this most recent crash ejected? SEATBELTS! You have a one in four chance of survival if you are ejected from a vehicle. Would parents even consider putting their children on a church van if they knew these vans can flip over traveling as little as 35 miles per hour? Would they even consider letting their children ride in these vans if they knew the adults usually don’t enforce the seatbelt law? These vans are poorly maintained, and frequently overloaded. Vehicle maintenance, seatbelt enforcement, and not overloading the vehicles is essential! How are we being good stewards if we don’t pay attention to basic safety for our children?
    Carol Hughes
    October, 9 2010

    Since people were ejected from the church vans in these news stories, that means that seat belts were almost certainly not being properly worn: unsafe and against the law. The best way to survive a vehicle crash is to consistently wear seat belts properly. It won’t save every life, but ejection from a moving vehicle leads directly to an ICU or a morgue.
    Jonathan Clemens
    October, 9 2010

    We do have an elder in charge of the safety of the vehicles, and I think an entire vehicle safety committee at our congregation. This summer, to be allowed to be put on the church’s insurance to drive on one of the youth mission trips, I had to attend a safety training course for the vans. Besides, yes, telling us to never put more kids than seat belts on the vans and have the kids in the seat belts, we were instructed to never pack things behind the rear seat. Evidently part of the danger of church vans is the imbalance of weight when the back is fully loaded (some of our older vans have also had the furthest back seat removed for this reason). We have a ‘people mover’ (mini bus) that we use as much as possible for trips, but when we must we don’t overload the vans and keep everyone in seat belts.
    Sarah Stirman
    October, 10 2010

    Our insurance company requires us to have our vans inspected annually by one of our deacons who is in charge of keeping our vans roadworthy. Motor Vehicle Reports are required for each driver we have on our list. It is updated annually as well.
    Seat belt usage is another story. It is not enforced but probably should be. Thanks to your article I am passing along recommendations that our seat belts be inspected, readily available and that use by the passengers be recommended or even required. Our kids have grown up using seat belts their whole lives. Asking them to use them on the van should not be an imposition.
    As an occasional driver, I think making sure vans are loaded correctly when hauling luggage, that tires are in tip-top shape, and that speeds are kept at a minimum would keep most accidents from happening.
    I grieve for those who have lost members in these accidents.
    Cindy Vick
    October, 12 2010

    About 6 years ago the Walled Lake Church of Christ purchased a 26 passenger bus. We had been using a 15 passenger van. That van was given to a smaller church who use it for transporting small groups of people. The bus is a ford deisel and gets about the same milage as the van did. The only draw back is that only folks with a CDL liscense can drive.
    Roger Woods
    October, 14 2010

    You have to keep them maintained. You also have to have drivers who are responsible and watching the road. Too many times the driver is trying to have fun with the kids – and that’s not a good mix. In all my years with Rick being a youth minister, I don’t recall any troubles – but I knew churches who did and my heart ached for them. Safety is more important than fun when you are driving teenagers anywhere.
    laura leach
    October, 14 2010

    I am not an expert on vans but am aware that schools are prohibited from using the 15 passenger vans unless the rear seat is removed, making them 8 or 11 passenger vans in California and possibly other states. Excess weight behind the rear axle may make them unstable and difficult to control in certain situations. There are videos that have been circulated showing what can happened with these vehicles. You can access those through state highway patrol and state police offices I think.
    John Free
    October, 14 2010

    Someone recently asked me for information on what we had done to convert our 2 church vans to dual rear wheels. I thought I’d post it here in case anyone was interested.
    Go to the home page of this site for justification for doing so. But don’t do it if you don’t intend to take action, because if you read what is there and become fully aware of the danger and don’t do it, and someone in your church is injured or killed in a church van, you won’t be able to live with yourself.
    The stability of those vans after the conversion was beyond belief. I never regretted spending the brethren’s money on that work.
    Mike Watkins
    November, 15 2010

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