The Honorable Sue Myrick
    U.S. House of Representatives
    319 South Street, Suite B
    Gastonia, NC 29052

    Dear Representative Myrick:

    Thank you for your letter of August 15, 2003, requesting information on behalf of your constituent, Mr. Keith Smith, of the First United Methodist Church in Gastonia. Mr. Smith is concerned about the 15-passenger vans used by the church and wishes to know if there is a "government policy" that 15-passenger vans "will be considered unsafe unless the last 2 back seats are removed from the van." As explained below, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor any other Federal agency has found 15-passenger vans to be "unsafe," regardless of whether seats are removed from the vans.

    By way of background, NHTSA is authorized to issue and enforce Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) applicable to new motor vehicles. Our statute at 49 U.S.C. '30112 requires any person selling or leasing a new vehicle to sell or lease a vehicle that meets all applicable FMVSSs. By NHTSAs definition, 15-passenger vans are "buses" - motor vehicles "with motive power, except a trailer, designed for carrying more than 10 persons." Thus, all 15-passenger vans must meet NHTSAs FMVSSs applicable to buses.

    Although the vehicles are not considered "unsafe," the way some 15-passenger vans may be driven may subject occupants to an increased risk of rollover crashes. On April 15, 2002, NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge, M.D., reissued a cautionary warning to 15-passenger van users because of an increased rollover risk under certain conditions. NHTSA research has shown that 15-passenger vans have a rollover risk that increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than ten. In fact, 15-passenger vans (with 10 or more occupants) had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded.

    Dr. Runge advised 15-passenger van users to be aware of the following safety precautions in order to significantly reduce the rollover risk:

    • It is important that 15-passenger vans be operated by trained, experienced drivers.

    • All occupants must wear seat belts at all times. Eighty percent of those who died in 15-passenger van rollovers nationwide in the year 2000 were not buckled up. Wearing seat belts dramatically increases the chances of survival during a rollover crash. In fatal, single-vehicle rollovers involving 15-passenger vans over the past decade, 92 percent of belted occupants survived.

    I am enclosing copies of the consumer advisory, a NHTSA study on "The Rollover Propensity of Fifteen-Passenger Vans," and a flyer, "Reducing the Risk of Rollover Crashes in 15-Passenger Vans."

    Because the Federal motor vehicle safety standards apply only to manufacturers and sellers of new motor vehicles, we do not regulate how a church must transport its congregation. However, each State has the authority to set its own standards regarding the use of motor vehicles, including 15-passenger vans. For this reason, North Carolina law should be consulted to see if there are regulations about how children or adult members of a church must be transported.

    I hope this information is helpful. If you or Mr. Smith have any further questions about 15-passenger vans safety or about NHTSA's programs, please feel free to contact me at this address or at (202) 366-2992.


    Jacqueline Glassman
    Chief Counsel