Passenger vans can be an efficient and cost-effective way to transport groups of people for nonprofit organizations. However, the risks involved are greater than using standard cars, so it's important to understand how passenger vans handle differently and what controls should be implemented to keep your staff and passengers safe when operating these vehicles.
Why are there increased risks with passenger vans?
Passenger vans sit higher off the ground than standard cars, which increases the risk of a rollover crash — especially when the van abruptly changes direction. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), rollover has proven to be one of the most significant dangers for 15-passenger vans, with the risk increasing dramatically as the number of passengers increase from fewer than five to more than 10.
Due to their size, passenger vans have larger blind spots that decrease the driver's visibility, are more likely to experience tire blowouts, handle less responsively and take longer to come to a complete stop than smaller vehicles.
How do we keep people safe?
The first step is to hire qualified drivers who are trained to handle passenger vans. Drivers need to be properly licensed and have a clean driving record. Ideally, they should also have experience operating large vehicles and be comfortable navigating high-traffic areas and adverse weather conditions.
We recommend obtaining motor vehicle records (MVRs) pre-hire and at least annually. The best practice is to continuously monitor drivers' records through your state's employer notification service or by using a third-party service provider. Evaluating a prospective employee's MVR gives you an indication of what kind of risk the prospect presents behind the wheel. Evaluating current employees' MVRs lets you know if they've been cited for any behaviors that don't align with the safe driving habits that protect your organization, its employees, passengers and others who share the road with them.
Driver trainings should include the following, at a minimum:
- Defensive driving
- Vehicle inspection
- Accident procedures
- Hazardous-weather driving
- Safe backing
- Passenger loading and unloading
Your organization should also develop a written fleet safety program that includes safe driving, distracted driving, vehicle maintenance, MVR, training and post-accident policies. Require that drivers read and sign an acknowledgment form before driving for your organization.
Vehicles should be properly maintained and up to date with regular inspections, tune-ups and repairs. Before each trip, the driver should inspect the vehicle, including checking tires, brakes, lights and other essential systems, and address any safety or maintenance concerns before loading passengers.
Safety precautions for drivers
When driving a passenger van, drivers need to take the following safety precautions:
- Fill the van from front to back. If every seat isn't occupied, have passengers sit only in forward-facing seats in front of the rear axle to increase vehicle stability. If possible, remove the rear seat to reduce the risk of rollovers.
- Verify the van's weight capacity in the owner's manual and adhere to it. Overloading the van can create serious risks, including tire blowouts, difficulty steering and reduced braking capacity.
- Ensure that all passengers — including the driver — wear their seatbelt at all times.
- Avoid distractions — using cell phones, eating, drinking, shouting and anything else that may take your attention away from the road.
- Plan and familiarize yourself with routes in advance; if possible, avoid hazardous roads, construction zones and other safety hazards.
- Ensure that the van is equipped with emergency supplies, including a first-aid kit, flashlight and other essential items suited to the terrain and weather.
- Never drink and drive. It's essential to be sober and alert while operating any vehicle.
- Always follow traffic laws and posted speed limits. Speeding, running red lights and other reckless driving behaviors can lead to serious accidents and injuries.
- When using the van to transport cargo, don't overload the van or place any loads on the roof. Store cargo inside the cabin, forward of the rear axle.
Recommended safety features for vans
In addition to having a well-maintained vehicle, safe drivers and a comprehensive fleet safety policy, your organization can further mitigate risks by equipping your passenger vans with safety features:
As always, remember to ABCDE: Always Be Careful, Document Everything.
Documentation includes policies, MVRs, vehicle maintenance records, training records, pre-trip checklists, incident reports and permission slips/waivers.
- Electronic stability control. According to the NHTSA, thanks to electronic stability control, rollover is no longer a danger for newer 15-passenger vans.
- Tire pressure monitors. These systems warn you when any tire is underinflated, so drivers can take action before the underinflated tire causes a blowout or other unsafe driving conditions.
- Adequate spare tires. According to the NHTSA, tires weaken with age, even unused tires, so replace the spare if it's old. To check the tire's age, check the tire identification number (TIN) on the tire's sidewall. The last four digits of the TIN indicate the week and year the tire was made (e.g., 1010 means March 2010).
- Collision warning systems. Motor vehicle accidents often are attributed to human error. To mitigate the risk of human error, you can equip your vans with warning systems for forward collisions, lane departures, rear cross traffics and blind spots.
- Collision intervention. Systems are available to prevent a crash, including automatic emergency braking, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, rear automatic braking and blind spot intervention.
- Back-up camera. Passenger vans' increased blind spots make it more difficult for drivers to see when backing up. Back-up cameras can help drivers see a hazard, pedestrian or structure that may be in a blind spot.
- Side curtain airbags. Airbags can help prevent occupant ejection during a crash.
- Vehicle telematics. While vehicle telematics won't alert or intervene with the vehicle in real-time, they do provide continuous feedback on driving behavior that will help your organization pinpoint training/coaching needs, so poor driving behavior can be corrected.
Special situations: Minors and wheelchairs users
Transporting minors has unique risks that these guidelines can help mitigate:
- Require each minors' parent or adult guardian to sign a permission slip and liability waiver authorizing your organization to transport the minor.
- Transport minors in an appropriate child-safety restraint system, as required by state law.
- Don't allow a minor to ride alone in a vehicle with a staff member.
- Take the most direct route to the destination without unnecessary stops.
- Prohibit employees from smoking or vaping while minors are in the vehicle.
- In an emergency, employees should keep the minors together, call 911, and then call their supervisor and/or designated contact.
When transporting a passenger who uses a wheelchair, follow these guidelines to ensure the safety of all passengers:
- Train employees to correctly use the van's ramp or lift to board wheelchairs in the van, in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.
- Department of Transportation (DOT) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations require that all ADA-compliant passenger vans have a two-part securement system for passengers who will sit in the wheelchair while traveling. Part of the system is a four-point securement method to secure the wheelchair in the van, and the other part is a seatbelt and shoulder harness to secure the wheelchair user. Follow the manufacturer's instructions when securing the wheelchair as well as best practices under ANSI/ RESNA WC18 and WC19.
- If the passenger isn't using the wheelchair as a seat, store the wheelchair where it can't move during transportation.
Gallagher can help
We're here to help! Gallagher has multiple resources to help your organization implement an effective fleet safety program. Contact your Gallagher representative and/or your assigned risk control consultant for the following:
- Sample fleet safety policy
- Access to safe/defensive driver training modules and videos
- Safe driver handouts and training materials
- Sample MVR policy and consent form
- Sample permission slips and liability waivers
By following these steps at your organization, you can help ensure the safety and wellbeing of all passengers while traveling to and from events, activities and other destinations. Reach out to your Gallagher National Risk Control representative for additional information.