If asked, what would you say is one of the most dangerous vehicles on the road — in terms of rollover — today? You may be surprised to learn it’s a vehicle commonly used by schools, day care centers, Scout troops, churches, and hotels – just to name a few. It’s the 15-passenger van. These vans look like any other van except they have been lengthened to accommodate more passengers. The problem is, when the van is fully loaded, it’s three times more likely to roll over in an emergency. All of the American car makers build a version of the van, and Ford sells the most.
Step off a plane and an airport hotel is likely to pick you up in a 15-passenger van. Back home at the day care center, children are climbing aboard this type van. Often it’s the shuttle for the parking lot, a ride to the university. The YMCA drives them, as does the post office. In fact, these vans seem to be everywhere. There are over 500,000 of them on the road. Millions of Americans who ride in them don’t give them a thought until the unique character of the van is suddenly and tragically revealed. That’s what happened to the First Baptist Church of Piedmont, South Carolina when it sent its children on a Bible retreat. Its 15-passenger van rolled over on the highway. Joshua Wood was among those inside and he never regained consciousness after the accident. Since 1990, over 500 people have been killed and hundreds seriously injured in 15-passenger van rollovers. The accident involving Joshua Wood is just an example of many. The van owned by the First Assembly of God church in Burkeburnette, Texas, rolled over on a shopping trip, killing four church members. Four athletes from Prairie View A&M University were killed when the driver of their van swerved to miss a car. College sports teams have been hit hard. The Kenyon College swim team lost a swimmer. Three people were injured when DePaul University’s women’s track team van rolled over. Two swimmers were seriously injured when the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s van rolled over.
This series of crashes has caught the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency investigated the van’s record and issued a rare warning concerning the Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, and GMC vans. The warning said “The risk of rollover increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases . . .” The agency studied single-vehicle accidents in which at least one person was killed. It found that with ten or more passengers, 85% of the crashes involved a rollover. It’s hard to believe, but the government doesn’t require any rollover standards.
Ford builds the most 15-passenger vans, followed by Dodge. GM has the smaller percent of the market and even a smaller percent of the fatal rollovers. The GM van is a different design. The wheel base is longer. Engineers say that lowers the chance the van will skid sideways. But when loaded, the GM van is still top-heavy, much like the Ford and Dodge. Ford calls its van the E350. It started building them about 30 years ago. And, according to a former Ford engineer, there was reason to question the van’s stability from the start.
Safety experts say that to drive a 15-passenger van with greater safety, it must be loaded with no more than ten passengers. Also, those passengers should be seated toward the front of the van and the use of seatbelts is essential. Additionally, it’s very important to maintain the tires on the van. In the words of one engineer, “the tires on a 15-passenger van must never fail.” Because the auto manufacturers continue to sell these vans, the responsibility for safety has fallen on the owners and insurers.
Guide One, the nation’s leading insurer of churches, has stopped writing any new policies on 15-passenger vans. This insurer will consider renewing policies for its existing customers only if drivers attend and pass special driver training courses that teach advanced techniques in operating the 15-passenger vans. Guide One recommends that all churches, day care centers, schools and other groups immediately consider safer transportation alternatives and are banning the use of 15-passenger vans. Jeff Hanna, Executive Director of Guide One Center for Risk Management observed:
It would be very easy to base our decision purely on business. But we have the claims and stories about people who are being killed in these vehicles. . . Often, 8-15 people dying at once, and the impact on a ministry is phenomenal. Many ministries have never recovered from these.
Most van users are unaware that these vehicles don’t have to pass the passenger test from NHTSA that other passenger vehicles do. Neither are drivers currently required to have a commercial driver’s license. Jim Swedenburg, Coordinator of Annuity and Insurance Services with the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, strongly recommends that churches allow no person to drive a 15-passenger van unless they have a commercial driver’s license. All of these factors increase dangers to passengers riding in these vans.
As recently as May of 2008, NHTSA Administrator, Nicole R. Mason, urged all 15-passenger van users to take appropriate safety precautions when taking to the road during the busy summer travel season. To encourage churches to buy mini-busses instead of vans, Guide One offers discounts for buying the “safer transportation.” These vehicles still impose a safety risk to occupants, claiming the lives of 58 people in accidents in 2006. To say that 15-passenger vans are unreasonably dangerous
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