12 & 15-Passenger Vans – Still not a viable option


The question of whether 12 and 15-passenger vans are safe refuses to go away. They have recently been in the news because some insurers are willing to provide coverage for new models, citing the improvements that manufacturers have made and the fact that 15-passenger van related deaths have declined steadily since 2001. The assumption is that the decrease has resulted from improved technology and safer vehicles but there is a strong counterclaim that the reduction is actually the result of reduced passenger miles. Many entities and groups campaigned vigorously to eliminate the use of these vehicles and through those efforts numerous vans have been retired from passenger service and many others now carry fewer passengers at lower speeds.

The perceived increase in safety is causing some of the organizations we insure to wonder if they should consider the new models. What are the issues? While it is not illegal to use 12 or 15-passenger vans for general transportation, there are restrictions regarding school-aged children in 15-passenger vans. Legality aside, a duty is owed to all passengers, adult, or child – a duty to keep them safe from harm. It is not just to keep them safe if we can afford to do so. If we cannot afford to transport them safely we should not transport them at all.

The cited safety advances in 15-passenger vans include stabilizer bars, rollover sensors, and crash sensors. While these are all good, they do not alter these vehicles’ shortcomings:

  • a high center of gravity, with each additional passenger raising that center of gravity
  • flat sides that contribute to instability in crosswinds
  • structural rigidity that was designed for the less demanding rigors of transporting cargo
  • seating configurations that place excessive weight on the left rear tire; coupled with under-inflated tires this often results in tire failure, typically blow-outs that can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle

The vehicle’s basic flaws are nearly impossible to alter. Manufacturers have not made significant changes in track (width of stance) that would reduce rollover tendency and some have even made the vehicles taller, thus raising their center of gravity.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continually emphasizes the danger of these vehicles and gives a list of safety precautions, all focusing on behavior.

  • keep passenger loads light (five to ten maximum); 15-passenger vans are 3 times more likely to roll over when loaded with more than 10 passengers
  • when the van is not full, passengers should sit in seats that are in front of the rear axle
  • check tire pressure weekly; a study showed 57% of vans had under-inflated tires
  • replace tires per manufacturer guidelines regardless of tread depth– tires loose their integrity with age, which is also why it is important to avoid using old spares
  • require all occupants to use their seat belts –nearly 80% of 15-passenger van fatalities did not according to a 2004 NHTSA study
  • use only qualified drivers – special training and experience are required for 15-passenger vans
  • position cargo ahead of the rear axle and do not use roof storage or tow anything behind the van (the vehicle owner’s manual has maximum weight of passengers and cargo specifications)
  • watch speed and road conditions – rollover risk increases significantly at speeds over 50 mph

If your programming requires transportation, mini-school buses are the acceptable alternative most similar to vans. Most states do not require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) for vehicles carrying 15 or fewer passengers.

Because we consider the improvements to be insufficient to alter our historical stance, dual rear wheels, seat belts, increased rollover protection (FMVSS 220), increased body joint strength (FMVSS 221), and passenger space compartmentalization (FMVSS 222) remain necessary for unqualified mini-bus approval.

Redwoods insured facilities have worked very diligently to remove these dangerous vehicles from their transportation programs, but we must stay vigilant and continue to eliminate them until we can proudly say that none of our community is at risk from these vehicles. Enforce compliance with a policy that 12- and 15-passenger vans are never to be used to transport people.


  • Posted November 18, 2016 11:04 PM by RVTech

    Remove the rear seat. Make it an 11-passenger van. The four-place rear seat can be moved to the place occupied by the 3-place seat, but the rails on the floor have to be moved as the 4-place seat won't fit on the rails for the 3-place seats. Hardly worth the trouble for a single seating position. A small amount of luggage may be placed ON THE FLOOR in the now-vacant area. DO NOT pike luggage up to the ceiling.

    Always fill the van from the front to the rear. Never have anyone sitting behind an empty seating position ahead of it. When people are let off, get the people off the rearmost seat and into vacant spots up front. Keep obese people out of the rear of the seats.

    Scrap Ford and old Dodge (pre-Sprinter) vans. The rear overhang is too much. ONLY the GMC Savana/Chevrolet Express should even be considered. Standard height Sprinters are similar. Do not haul people in hightop Sprinters.

    Never install roof racks or carriers on a van, cargo or passenger model.

    ALWAYS use Load Range E tires on the rear of a van. Inflate to the maximum on the sidewall (80 psi) for the lateral stiffness and roll reduction they provide. Make sure that infamous left rear tire is at 80 psi every day before driving. Not only do the left-biased seats add load to the left rear tire, so does the rear A/C-heater unit in the left rear corner. Then, the driveshaft torque tends to twist the axle so that more load is placed on the left rear tire.

    Mount ONLY NEW tires on 12- and 15-passenger vans (once again, get rid of that 4-place seat in the very back. It makes a nice sofa in the rec room at home if you make a stable base for it.

    Added aftermarket roll-over cages do nothing for body stiffness and raise the center of gravity. Newer vans that have roll-over cages built into the body at least increase body stiffness, and do not raise the center of gravity as much.

    Don't tow a trailer with a 12- or 15-passenger van. If for some reason you must, drive the combination by yourself. Despite the lowering of the center of gravity by the trailer tongue (hitch) load, a trailer encourages jackknifing. If a trailer jackknifes, it will be as if a truck the size of the trailer T-boned the side of the van.

    Don't hit anything with the front of a snubnose (Cab-Over-Engine) van. There is little crush space to absorb shock. Vans are not designed to the same standards as automobiles. They are designed to haul only two people, up front, and cargo. Then they are adapted to carrying people. Cargo starts out on the floor and then is stacked up. The heaviest cargo is loaded on the floor. Seats are heavy and start out about a foot above the floor and then go up from there. People then sit on the seats, not on the floor. All that empty space down low does the wrong thing for stability. Passenger vans have a lot of heavy interior wall and ceiling trim that cargo vans don't, raising the CoG.

    It is the usual for the front wheel on the side of the front that is hit to come up through the floorboard and break ankles and legs.

    Don't EVER tolerate anyone riding without their seat belt fastened and snug.

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