"It's not enough to address safety concerns on a case-by-case, trip-by-trip basis," said Jim Welch, GuideStone's director of property and casualty product development. "The church is responsible for putting protections in place for transportation for all ministries, on all trips. It requires leadership commitment, resources, time and consideration. Each is critical for success."
Church-sponsored transportation safety is in the spotlight after a bus just one mile from its destination of Colonial Hills Baptist Church crashed Saturday (July 27) on an interstate exit ramp, slamming into a concrete barrier and rolling over, ejecting some of its 37 passengers.
A youth pastor, his pregnant wife, their unborn child and a church volunteer were killed as others were hospitalized, including one teenager with critical injuries.
The independent, fundamental Baptist church posted on its website a memorial to those killed, quoting Scripture and affirming God has been "drawing people to Himself in saving faith through this situation, and we're amazed by a God who brings beauty out of ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). For these reasons and many more, we rejoice, even as we sorrow!"
Indiana State Police told USA Today that questions remained unanswered days after the tragedy.
"We are looking into seeing if has any records they'd be willing to offer up to show us," USA Today quoted 1st Sgt. Tyler Utterback of the Indiana State Police. "It's not a requirement."
Keeping certain vehicle records and building safeguards around ministry transportation should be clear church priorities, Welch told Baptist Press, recommending precautions regardless of whether churches own or charter the vehicles.
"Before and after every trip, no matter how short, churches should inspect their vehicles," Welch said. "Government data show that 70 percent of all van accidents happen within 25 miles of home. Dedicated teams (two or more qualified adults) should be responsible for these inspections, and churches should keep good records of these inspections."
Make sure drivers are properly trained, screened and rested; make sure vehicles are properly inspected, maintained, operated and stored, and make sure church representatives and others involved have signed participation agreements and behave appropriately, Welch recommended.
"When it comes to drivers, handing the keys to the first available person is a big mistake. Drivers should be prescreened for clean driving and criminal records, have an established association with the church and have plenty of experience in general driving, as well as with the vehicle they'll be handling," he said.
"Also be aware that if you own a charter bus or school bus, the driver must have a commercial driver's license. You should order and review each driver's motor vehicle record every year," Welch said.
Participants, and guardians of participants under age 18, should sign agreements specifying the activity, waiving the church's liability for trip injuries and granting the church authority to obtain any necessary medical treatment for participants, Welch said.
Check safety records of each type of vehicle before use and use the vehicles only as intended, he said.
Follow "common-sense safety requirements," he recommends, including:
-- setting and enforcing capacity requirements for vehicles;
-- requiring all occupants wear seat belts at all times, if available;
-- requiring drivers obey all speed limits and traffic laws, be at least 25, be well-rested and have appropriate experience driving the particular vehicle they'll drive for the church;
-- annually evaluating the health and fitness of drivers over the age of 65;
-- prohibiting drivers from using cell phones at any time while on the road and limiting other distractions, including noise, food, drink and electronics.
When chartering transportation, churches can be proactive by choosing only established, well-known companies with well-maintained equipment, Welch said.
"Check them out with the Better Business Bureau and ask for referrals if possible," Welch said. "The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (www.fmcsa.dot.gov) establishes rules and regulations for motor carriers. Churches should familiarize themselves with these standards so that they may use them to evaluate a specific carrier's qualifications and behavior.
When possible, observe pre- and post-trip vehicle inspections and ask to see inspection records.
"It's best to have the church attorney carefully review the contract prior to signing," Welch said. "Never sign an agreement that has wording making the church responsible for injuries sustained while riding in a vehicle driven by a charter operator.
"Keep in mind that the church could still be held liable for injuries that occur at the trip destination or as the result of improper planning," Welch said. "Churches should discuss trips with their insurance agent to make sure they're properly prepared and covered."
Maintain government required registrations and inspections, and regularly self-inspect vehicles, he said, covering such basics as tire condition and pressure, lights, engine condition, safety equipment, oil and gas levels and windshield wipers. Welch recommends stocking vehicles with safety supplies and equipment, including a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit and emergency flares.
Insure church-owned vehicles with commercial auto policies, not modified personal policies, and if chartering, take out policies for "hired and non-owned" vehicles, Welch said.
"Additionally, if churches transport large numbers of people (10-plus), they should consider carrying excess or umbrella liability coverage just in case the unthinkable happens," Welch said. "The limits on auto policies could quickly be exhausted in the event of a larger-scale accident."
Welch recommends as a resource the risk management experts at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, GuideStone's alliance partner, which offers free information at www.BrotherhoodMutual.com.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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