A church van accident over the weekend in Hamblen County is drawing attention to the safety of 15-passenger vans.
It is an ongoing concern. In fact, federal law prohibits their use for school-related transportation.
"It can much more easily roll over and in a panic situation they won't handle like a car and people can find themselves off the road very quickly," AAA East Tennessee Spokesman Don Lindsey explained.
The big vans used to be the standard for churches because they can carry a lot of people.
But safety concerns have encouraged churches to upgrade, something one West Knoxville church did 6 years ago.
"Brotherhood insurance would no longer insure vans because of their extra danger being top heavy and not too well protected for passengers, particularly for children," Tom Akins of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church said.
The church sold its six vans and bought two mini-buses. They accommodate 15 passengers each plus luggage, with honeycombed steel walls, dual wheels, disc brakes, seat belts, and a much lower rollover risk.
"When they're sitting down their heads are only this high," Akins said as he pointed to the top of the seats on one mini-bus. "So you can see the weight is pretty far down for a wide bus with dual wheels so there's a lot of stability."
Akins makes sure their volunteer mini-bus drivers are trained, something not all 15-passenger van drivers get.
"They are not like cars. They don't drive like cars," Lindsey said.
He's familiar with the safety issues of 15-passenger vans.
"They're taller, they're heavier, they weigh about 8,500 pounds, much heavier than a normal sedan. They can more easily roll over, they can take longer to accelerate so if you're planning on merging you have to leave plenty of room for that. They can take longer to brake," Lindsey said.
If you are using a 15-passenger van, AAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommend seat belts for everyone, frequent tire pressure checks, and seating people forward of the rear axle.
At Cedar Springs Presbyterian, the remaining 15-passenger van mostly stays parked.
"The one we have left is used as a warehouse for traffic cones," Akins said with a laugh.
Another safety tip for all church buses has to do with tires. They may not show wear if they're not driven that often, but should be replaced after 6 years anyway to avoid tire disintegration.