Louisville Courier-Journal print subscribers woke up to this question Sunday morning: "Is your church van a death trap?"
Or, as the headline atop the online version of the Kentucky newspaper's in-depth investigative report put it, "Churches are putting their faith in these old vans that could kill."
This is important journalism, based on the Courier-Journal's analysis of millions of crash records from six states between 2004 and 2017.
Readers — particularly those with a 15-passenger van in their church parking lot — would do well to pay attention to it.
I'll share a longer chunk of the opening paragraphs than normal, but these details are both powerful and crucial:
A Ford Motor Company employee test-driving a 15-passenger van flipped it while swerving through a series of cones in 1990.
He didn’t report it. He blamed himself, not the van — and his superiors agreed. That vehicle, the E350, dominated the large-van market for years.
But a Florida jury in March blamed that same make and model van for a woman’s death, granting her four children and husband nearly $20 million in damages.
The left-rear tire on the 2002 E350 had shredded. The van flipped, and passenger Michalanne Salliotte, 44, was tossed from the vehicle and crushed on Feb. 21, 2014.
Salliotte and the driver, who also died, were among five people thrown out as the van tumbled. One was a teenager who had to repeat a year of school because of brain damage. Seven others were injured.
The jury also found the First Baptist Church of New Port Richey negligent for not keeping seat belts in the van within reach.
Transportation safety officials have known since 2001 that 15-passenger vans like the E350 are prone to roll in a crash when loaded with people. Federal officials have issued repeated safety warnings to carmakers and the public. Some insurance companies refuse to cover them. A major religious denomination advises member churches to avoid them. And at least 28 states prohibit public schools from using them to transport students.
Yet many churches around the country still use the old vans to haul kids to swimming pools, take parishioners to services or deliver members to conferences and revival meetings.
And people still die.
Of course, safety questions about 15-passenger vans are not new.
In a piece I wrote for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax publication earlier this year, attorney Frank Sommerville noted:
The 15-passenger van is so popular because it’s the largest vehicle that can be driven without a special license. But I would caution against using 15-passenger vans. There are too many risks. They are just too unstable on the road. It’s worth mentioning that federal law prohibits school districts from using them.
(Out of 25 states that responded to a Courier-Journal survey, only California requires a commercial license to drive a 15-passenger church van, the story said.)
But while this story isn't breaking news, the Louisville paper performs an extremely valuable public service — as the best journalism does. The Courier-Journal's Caitlin McGlade and Justin Price delve meticulously into the subject, reviewing not just crash records but testimony in various lawsuits sparked by van crashes.
The report is tied to the 30th anniversary of a crash involving a church bus that claimed 27 lives:
As a result of that crash, surplus school buses fell out of favor for many churches, which turned to 15-passenger vans:
The result, according to the Courier-Journal:
All they did was trade one danger for another.
Keep reading, and the paper offers chilling examples of cases where church van crashes resulted in deaths.
And the reporters note that the kind of vans involved remain a fixture for many churches:
Little Flock Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville regularly uses two 15-passenger vans to bring children and the elderly to church, take the elderly on outings and occasionally drive to out-of-town events. Only one of the vans has electronic stability control.
Patsy Turner, administrative assistant to the pastor, said she didn’t know the church’s oldest van, a 1999 Ford E350, presents a heightened risk.
After being contacted by Courier Journal, Turner said she'll talk to the eight-member committee that manages the vans about rollover risk.
“I don’t think it’s something that we should take lightly," she said.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
This is essential reading for all church leaders responsible for the transportation of God's children — young and old.
Kudos to the Courier-Journal for shining a bright light — and investing the time and resources to do so — on this often-ignored safety issue.