Is It Legal to Add Seats to a Cargo Van [With Safety Rules]

Transit and other cargo vans have legions of fans and many uses. Naturally, some people want to add additional seats to make the vans even more practical.

While you can add seats to cargo vans, there are many rules and regulations that you have to follow to do so. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as simply bolting in a seat or two.

The trickiest part is ensuring that the new seats meet the safety requirements for children, which are based on federal safety standards. Not all after-market parts will pass this test. 

Failure to address safety requirements can end in an inability to insure the car, sell the car, or meet registration requirements. Professionals can make the process go more smoothly by installing seats with an eye toward both federal and state regulations.

In this article, we review the regulations and procedures you need to follow to modify your cargo van. We also make some recommendations for making the process a little easier.

Why Can’t You Just Add Seats to a Van?

Even after you own a car, any modifications you make must still comply with state and federal laws and regulations for vehicles. When you add seats to a cargo van, it can be difficult for the finished product to meet safety regulations.

Vehicles are made to different standards depending on their weight and whether they are a cargo or passenger vehicle. Passenger vehicles have higher safety standards than cargo vehicles.

Regardless of state and federal laws, simply adding seats to the back of a van is very unsafe. Cargo areas are not equipped with the same safety features as passenger areas of vehicles. 

Anyone who rides in the improperly modified portion of a cargo van is at much greater risk of death or injury.

What Are the Safety Differences?

If you plan to modify a cargo van with additional seats, here are some things you need to be aware of:

  • Cargo vans are unlikely to have the required side and curtain airbags in the rear part of the van. Factory installation usually only includes airbags in the front driver and passenger areas. 
  • Seat installation must meet the particular specification for the van’s floor layout. Not all parts, including seat and seat belt anchors, will interact properly with all floor beds.
  • When you buy after-market seats, they may not fit in the cargo van in a way that allows the side-impact airbags to deploy properly. 
  • Passenger areas of vehicles are reinforced to prevent crush injuries. They are also designed to include impact absorption areas.

United States Passenger Vehicle Regulations

The United States has a lengthy list of minimum standards an automobile must meet to be road worthy. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).

The FMVSS addresses three main topics: crash avoidance, crashworthiness, and post-crash survivability. Not only should the cars be safe for the driver and passengers, they should not pose a hazard to others on the road. 

The complete list of regulations can be found in the US Code of Federal Regulations at 49 CFR Part 571.

These standards prevent people from modifying vehicles in a way that jeopardizes the safety of the passengers.

Why Are There So Many Van Seats to Buy Online?

A quick scroll through Google will yield a lot of results for van seats marketed to expand seating capacity. Many of them are very inexpensive, and you will see some very bare bones benches.

After seeing this, it can be confusing as to why you shouldn’t just install the seats regardless of the rules. Later in this article, we will go over some of the consequences for not properly installing the additional seats.

But, it is also helpful to know some of the other reasons those seats may be needed. Different rules apply to commercial vans. 

Increasingly, trades people use cargo vans like Transit vans as both transportation and workshop. The back of the van may be modified to be a work area instead of just cargo hauling. 

This setup is meant to be used only when the van is stationary, so it does not violate highway safety rules.

Additionally, rules vary based on the weight of the vehicle. The benches you see on Amazon may be fine in some vehicles and illegal in others. 

Vehicle Weights and Classifications Have Different Rules

Depending on the weight of the vehicle and how it is classified, the safety requirements can vary. When adding seats to a cargo van, you may want to look into getting it classified as an RV or camper van.

Having a van classified as an RV can be very favorable in terms of registration costs and the stringency of safety rules. Of course, this will depend on your state’s rules and policies.

RV registration is often less expensive than commercial vehicle registration. So, if you can have your otherwise van registered as an RV, it can save you some money. 

Be aware that you can be subject to some stiff penalties if you continue to use your van for commercial purposes after designating it as an RV.

Generally, most states require that RV or camper vans have a permanent bed and kitchen area to receive the designation.

Do You Need a Permit to Add Seats to a Cargo Van?

When you make certain permanent modifications to a vehicle, it can impact the registration of the vehicle. Each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles manages these inspection and registration issues.

When you add passenger seats to a cargo van, it may change it from the commercial class to the cargo class. This usually triggers the need for a DMV inspection.

This inspection is why it is important for all of the modifications to meet the safety guidelines. Failure to do so could leave your car ineligible for registration.

What Happens if You Don’t Follow the Safety Rules?

Installing seats to a cargo van isn’t cheap if you do it to follow state and federal safety regulations. As a result, many people just do it the way they think seems safe enough.

If you do this, there are a few different ways you could see consequences. First, if you are ever pulled over, you can receive a ticket for passengers seated in the unsafe area.

State laws generally require that passengers, particularly minors, be restrained in federally approved safety systems. The driver operating a car with violations can receive monetary fines and points on their drivers license.

Additionally, if you are driving an unsafe vehicle, you could be personally liable if your passengers are injured in an accident. They, or their insurance, could sue you for the damages they incur.

Will Adding Seats Impact My Insurance?

When you add seats to a cargo van, you do need to contact your insurance carrier. You may have to update your policy to reflect the additional passenger capacity of the van.

When this happens, it can increase the cost of your policy. This is because more people in the vehicle at one time increases the total possible liability each time you drive.

Can I Get My Van Professionally Modified?

Depending on your needs, it may make the most sense to purchase a van from a professional retrofitter. You can also get your van professionally modified to meet safety regulations. 

Most often, businesses get vans professionally modified in a process known as a van conversion. When this happens, the upper back half of the van may be cut away and height added.

This allows for rows of seating to be added with an aisle. You may be most familiar with this style from senior living vans. 

Having your van professionally modified is by far the best option if you plan to use your van for business. Also, consider this method if you will regularly be hauling people instead of cargo.

The NTEA, the national work truck association, recommends that a full engineering assessment be done before adding seats to a cargo van.

Ultimately, it is usually less expensive to buy a vehicle designed for your purposes. Customizing a van to make it safe to do something it’s not meant to do can be a costly project.

Do Some Cargo Vans Come with Seats Already?

If you know at the time of purchase that you want seats in a cargo van, you should have options through the dealer. The dealer whom you purchase from should be able to work with an upfitter to add seats.

By doing this, you may be able to get branded seats. And, if the seats are not branded, they should at least match the interior of your van.

Going through a professional manufacturer also gives you the best chance of a safe modifications. Professional manufacturers are subject to heightened safety requirements.

Takeaways about Adding Seats to Cargo Vans

When adding seats to cargo vans, the most important thing to keep in mind is adherence to safety rules. While it can be tempting to go the least expensive way possible, that can be very costly in the long term.

Failing to comply with state and federal safety regulations can result in fines from law enforcement. Additionally, unsafe modifications can leave you open to lawsuits if your passengers are hurt due to your modifications.

Author

Welcome to my car seat blog! As a mom of 3, I put together with other hard-working moms a highly informative one-stop car seat resource, full with many reviews and buyer guides. I hope you find it invaluable. Thank you for trusting me & my team! - Keren