Church Vans

I posted this story over at, but it reminded me of many of the things about church vans that can become an insurance nightmare.

A terrible story out of Kentucky:
State police say the death toll has risen to 11 in a fiery crash between a tractor-trailer and a church van on northbound Interstate 65 in south-central Kentucky.

State police Trooper Charles Swiney says two children survived the crash.

A pastor for the family in the van says they were Mennonites from Kentucky on their way to a wedding in Iowa. Authorities say the truck driver was also killed.

Officials say the tractor-trailer crossed the median and struck the van head-on around 5:30 a.m. CDT near Munfordville.
When I was in the church insurance business several of the top losses in the history of the company had involved church vans. It doesn't appear to be the case in this accident, but it was often the driver's inexperience with that type of vehicle that led to the crash.

In one case I remember a youth pastor was driving a group of kids at night somewhere in the desert and decided to try and switch drivers without stopping. In the process they lost control of the van and rolled over. A girl from the church was killed and I think the company ended up paying over $250,000.

In another case a church preparing for a long trip took their van to a local tire shop. The shop said three of the four tires needed to be changed, but the other one was okay. Somewhere in New Mexico that other tire blew out causing the van to roll. One person was left with terrible permanent disabilities. The jury found the tire store faultless and held the church 100% responsible to the tune of $10 million. The church only had $5 million in insurance and ended up having to sell their property and almost everything they had to pay the judgment.

If your church has a van, especially a 15 passenger, you have to be very careful how those are operated. Too many times I've read stories where a group loaded all kinds of heavy stuff on the roof plus a full load of passengers and then had an incident where the vehicle got out of control. When you load the roof you raise the center of gravity and move it towards the rear of the vehicle, and that makes the front end a little goosey and makes a loss of control much more likely. For awhile there some church insurers wouldn't even insure 15 passenger vans.

Some states, like California, require a Class B Commercial license to operate any church vehicle with 10 or more seats, though many churches don't follow that law unless their insurer makes them or the CHP stops them. That's probably a good idea since going from a passenger car to a large van is not as easy a transition as you might think.

1 Day, 4 Appointments, 333 Miles

As an agent my appointments were either set by me directly, usually for new business calls, and by my office for renewal meetings. We kept a common calendar so both of us could see what was scheduled and try to maximize our efficiency. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.

One day I was scheduled in the Rancho Bernardo area in the northernmost part of the city of San Diego at 10am and in San Ysidro, the southernmost part of the city at 11:30. My appointment would take at least an hour and the scheduler didn't realize that even though both churches had San Diego addresses they were 40 miles apart. I didn't make it to the second appointment on time.

I'll never forget one particular day because it was probably the longest day I ever had on the road.

I started the day by leaving home about 8am for a 9am renewal meeting in Vista. First leg was a relatively short 46 miles. I departed Vista around 10 for the second leg, an 83 mile drive to Borrego Springs for a new business appointment at noon. Borrego Springs is out in the middle of the desert and it's not all highway driving. The last leg into town is a winding mountain road that descends into the valley where the town is located. I made it on time, but didn't have much of a cushion.

I spent another hour there before heading out on the third leg - 31 miles back through the desert and up the winding Hwy 78 mountain road to a camp in Julian. Got there in time to grab some lunch before the 3pm meeting. Much prettier country than Borrego Springs, but camp renewal meetings always involve a lot more work.

And the day wasn't done. After a 90 minute meeting it was time to head for the fourth leg - 46 miles to Campo, right on the Mexican border where I had a 7:30 pm meeting with a church board. For the record, there's almost no place to go in Campo for dinner. No fast food places, no restaurants that I could find...nothing.

My meeting with the church board only took about 30 minutes (I wasn't the only agenda item) and I was finally free to start the final leg - 126 miles back home. I think I got there a little after 10pm.

It looked like a great adventure when I first planned the trip, but by the time I got home I resolved never to try that again.