Some Colorado children are still being transported in 15-passenger vans, despite warnings they can roll when fully loaded. One such van was involved in a crash in Idaho last month that killed five members of a Colorado church.
Since 1974, federal laws have prohibited the sale of new 15-passenger vans for school-related transport up to high school level. The laws do not prohibit schools from buying used vans.
Some school districts and commercial operators that use the vans say they are always driven by experienced drivers who know the vehicles’ vulnerabilities. Other school districts and religious groups said they were unaware of the concerns the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raised in April.
Schools in Denver, Gunnison, and Douglas and Adams counties use the vans.
An NHTSA report in April said the vans are more likely to roll when fully loaded because the weight of the passengers is above the center of gravity. A van with more than 10 occupants is about three times more likely to roll than one with fewer passengers, the study found. Auto manufacturers have said their vans are tested to ensure they are safe.
NHTSA recommended that only experienced drivers handle the vans. In the Idaho crash, a 17-year-old was driving when the van rolled while taking teens and chaperones to a religious retreat. Police say he may have fallen asleep.
Even before that crash, parents of children in the Marble Charter School in Gunnison questioned their school’s use of a 15-passenger van, purchased in February.
Parent Dana Darien kept her seventh-grade son Hunter from going on a field trip to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming partly because she was worried about the van’s safety. She has asked the Gunnison County Watershed School District board to replace the vans.
“It’s not an inherently dangerous vehicle,” NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said. “But it needs to be driven by someone with experience in that type of vehicle.”