Q&A: 15-passenger vans
- 1 What are 15-passenger vans?
These are large vans with five rows of seats intended to transport up to 15 people, including the driver. The federal government classifies 15-passenger vans as buses for the purpose of vehicle safety standards (49 CFR 571.3(b)).
Fifteen-passenger vans first appeared on the U.S. market in 1972 and gained popularity during the 1990s with annual registrations increasing from about 150,000 in 1990 to more than 500,000 in 2005. As of July 1, 2012, there were about 672,000 registered, comprising about 0.2 percent of the total U.S. passenger vehicle fleet. The Ford Econo Club E-350, which has been produced since the 1978 model year, is by far the most popular model, accounting for 62 percent of registrations. That model, the Chevrolet Express 3500 and GMC Savana 3500 are the only three 15-passenger vans currently in production.
Number of registered 15-passenger vans by make and model, as of July 1, 2012 Model years Make and model Registrations 1978-2012 Ford Econo Club E-350 416,079 1981-2002 Dodge B350/3500 118,616 1996-2012 Chevrolet Express 3500 101,990 1990-1996 Chevrolet Sportvan 1T 8,513 1975-1980 Dodge Maxivan B300 8,912 1997-2012 GMC Savana 3500 14,592 1990-1996 GMC Rally 1T 3,152 Total 671,854
- 2 Are occupants of 15-passenger vans more likely than occupants of other passenger vehicles to die in crashes?
The driver death rate in 15-passenger vans is lower than in other passenger vehicles, but the occupant death rate in the vans is higher. During 2007-11, there were 32 driver deaths per million registered 15-passenger vans. This was less than half the driver death rate (74) for all other passenger vehicles combined (cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs). However, the death rate for all occupants, not just drivers, was higher for 15-passenger vans than for other passenger vehicle types combined — 136 versus 104 deaths per million registered vehicles.
This is largely because 15-passenger vans tend to have much higher occupancy rates, so more people are at risk of dying when a crash occurs. Among passenger vehicles in fatal crashes during 2007-11, an average of five occupants were in 15-passenger vans, compared with two occupants in all other passenger vehicles combined.
- 3 Who can drive 15-passenger vans?
Although driver licensing is a state matter, states must follow federal standards for commercial drivers. These standards require drivers of vans designed to carry at least 16 occupants to have a commercial driver's license but do not apply to vans designed to carry fewer occupants. States may impose their own restrictions if vans are used commercially, but no special license is needed for uses such as transporting a sports team or church group.
Licensing and training requirements for drivers of 15-passenger vans are a matter of concern because some van drivers may not operate such large vehicles on a regular basis. They may be unfamiliar with the way the vans handle and how they should be maintained.
The safety consequences of extending commercial licensing requirements to drivers of 15-passenger vans are not known. If, for example, the result were fewer groups traveling by van because of a shortage of licensed drivers, then these occupants might spread out into multiple vehicles. The net safety effect of putting more vehicles on the road to transport the same number of people is unknown.
- 4 Are there special handling issues for 15-passenger vans?
Yes. Fifteen-passenger vans are larger than most other passenger vehicles, and an inexperienced driver may have difficulty negotiating corners, backing up or performing other maneuvers. These vans also have high centers of gravity, making them less stable than vehicles such as cars. Adding passengers raises a vehicle's center of gravity, so given the greater seating capacity of 15-passenger vans, they become increasingly difficult to handle and less stable as passengers are added.
- 5 Are 15-passenger vans less stable than other vehicle types?
Yes. A 2004 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) looked at changes in the odds of rolling over in a single-vehicle crash as the number of occupants increased, after accounting for differences in weather and driver and roadway characteristics. Subramanian, R. 2004. Analysis of crashes involving 15-passenger vans. Report DOT HS-809-735. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The risk of a single-vehicle rollover crash was found to be lower for 15-passenger vans than for SUVs when the driver was traveling alone. However, adding occupants to either vehicle type increased the risk of rollover by 9-12 percent per occupant. The odds of rollover for a 15-passenger van increased more than 400 percent when fully loaded compared with a driver traveling alone. For other passenger vehicle types, the odds of rollover when fully loaded compared with a driver traveling alone increased 20 percent for cars, 50 percent for pickups and almost 100 percent for SUVs and minivans.
Laboratory tests conducted for NHTSA found that the increased risk of rollover for 15-passenger vans was associated with their high centers of gravity. Garrott, W.R.; Rhea, B.; Subramanian, R.; and Heydinger, G.J. 2001. The rollover propensity of fifteen-passenger vans. Research note. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When test vehicles were fully loaded, the center of gravity increased 0.9 inches for minivans, 1.4 inches for seven-passenger vans and 4 inches for 15-passenger vans.
In 2007-11, 44 percent of the 137 rollover deaths in 15-passenger vans occurred in vans carrying at least 10 occupants, while only 32 percent of people who died in 15-passenger vans that did not roll over were riding in such heavily loaded vans.
- 6 Is tire pressure a factor in crashes involving 15-passenger vans?
Improperly inflated tires can affect any vehicle's stability, increasing the likelihood of a crash. In 2005, NHTSA published the results of a survey on tire pressures among large vans. The sample included 937 15-passenger vans used by different types of organizations at 16 locations across the United States. Fifty-seven percent of the vans had at least one tire underinflated by 25 percent or more, relative to the pressure recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. About 1 in 4 vans had at least one tire overinflated by 25 percent above the recommended pressure, and 6 percent had at least one tire inflated above the maximum pressure indicated on the tire sidewall. Thiriez, K.K.; Ferguson, E.; and Subramanian, R. 2005. 12 & 15 passenger vans tire pressure study: preliminary results. Traffic safety facts, Research note. Report DOT HS-809-846. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In a separate survey, NHTSA found that about 30 percent of cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs had at least one underinflated tire. Thiriez, K. and Bondy, N. 2003. NHTSA's tire pressure special study, February 2001. Paper 256. Proceedings of the 18th International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (CD-ROM). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, the extent to which tire inflation has contributed to the crashes of 15-passenger vans is unknown. Also, automatic tire pressure monitoring systems are now standard on all new passenger vehicles, including 15-passenger vans.
- 7 Does electronic stability control (ESC) help reduce the rollover propensity of 15-passenger vans?
ESC has been found to reduce fatal single-vehicle crash risk by 49 percent and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by 20 percent for cars and SUVs. Many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and ESC effectiveness in preventing rollovers is even more dramatic. It reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 75 percent for SUVs and by 72 percent for cars. Farmer, C.M. 2010. Effects of electronic stability control on fatal crash risk. Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. ESC is designed to help prevent drivers from losing control of their vehicles during high-speed maneuvers or on slippery roads. It is an extension of antilock brake technology with additional sensors that continuously monitor how well a vehicle is responding to a driver's steering input. When the sensors detect the vehicle is straying from the driver's intended line of travel, ESC brakes individual wheels to keep the vehicle under control. ESC also may modulate engine speed. All 2006 and later model 15-passenger vans are equipped with ESC.
In 2004, NHTSA began publishing the results of vehicle handling tests to rate the stability of some passenger vehicles. The tests are part of the rollover stability component of NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which provides consumers with vehicle safety information. In the 2005 federal highway reauthorization act, Congress told NHTSA to begin conducting tests to rate the stability of 15-passenger vans. To date, NHTSA has conducted limited handling tests of 15-passenger vans. In tests of a 2003 Ford E-350 and 2004 GMC Savana 3500 with and without ESC, drivers of the ESC-equipped vans were less likely to lose control in the kinds of high-speed maneuvers that can result in rollover. Forkenbrok, G.J. and Garrott, W.R. 2004. Testing the rollover resistance of two 15-passenger vans with multiple load configurations. Report DOT HS-809-704. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Still, there are not enough ESC-equipped 15-passenger vans on the road to measure the real-world effects.
- 8 What other safety features are available on 15-passenger vans?
In addition to ESC, antilock brakes and front-row airbags, all of which are now standard on all 15-passenger vans, side-curtain airbags and laminated glass windows are standard on 2008-12 models of the Chevrolet Express 3500 and the GMC Savana 3500. The side-curtain airbags are the largest on the market and protect occupants in the first three rows of seating during side impacts, in addition to preventing ejection. Reinforced glass in the fourth and fifth rows, which resists breaking, also is designed to prevent ejection of occupants.
- 9 Is belt use a factor in deaths of occupants of 15-passenger vans?
Yes. During 2007-11, 62 percent of fatally injured 15-passenger van occupants were unrestrained. Among fatally injured van occupants who were not restrained, 54 percent were fully ejected from the vehicle. In comparison, among fatally injured occupants of other passenger vehicle types, non-use of belts ranged from 31 percent in pickups to 48 percent in cars and minivans, and the rate of total ejection among unrestrained occupants ranged from 36 percent for SUVs to 62 percent for cars and minivans. Current federal rules require lap/shoulder belts at all seating positions in all new passenger vehicles, including 15-passenger vans.
- 10 Is alcohol a factor among drivers of 15-passenger vans involved in fatal crashes?
Yes, but not as much as for drivers of other passenger vehicle types. During 2007-11, 17 percent of fatally injured drivers of 15-passenger vans had blood alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent. This proportion was lower than for fatally injured drivers of cars (30 percent), SUVs (37 percent) or pickups (41 percent).
- 11 Are there any government efforts aimed at organizations transporting people to reduce occupant fatality rates in 15-passenger vans?
Most states require the use of school buses to transport children to and from school and school-related events, but some states do not. NHTSA recommends that preschool and school-age children not be transported in 15-passenger vans. The 2005 federal highway reauthorization act prohibits pre-primary, primary and secondary schools from purchasing, renting or leasing new 15-passenger vans to be used significantly to transport students to and from school and school-related activities unless the vans meet the federal standards for school buses or multifunctional school activity buses. The additional design standards for school buses — such as roof rollover protection and strong, closely spaced seats with padded, energy-absorbing seatbacks — provide greater occupant protection in the event of a crash.
In 2001, NHTSA issued a consumer advisory recommending that 15-passenger vans be operated by experienced drivers familiar with handling such large vehicles. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2001. Consumer advisory. Press release, April 9. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Organizations using these vans were urged to require safety belt use at all times. Consumer advisories in 2004 and 2005 warned users of 15-passenger vans about an increased risk of rollover under certain conditions. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2004. Press release, June 1. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2005. Press release, May 26. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. In August 2003, NHTSA amended the school bus safety regulations to encourage churches and other groups to use buses instead of vans. Office of the Federal Register. 2003. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – Final Rule. Docket No. HNTSA-2002-13704; 49 CFR Part 571 – Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Definition of Multifunction School Activity Bus. Federal Register, Vol. 68(147), pp. 44892-44901. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration