Fifteen-passenger vans are a staple mode of transportation amongst churches, schools, retirement homes and daycares. These vans are a cheaper alternative to buses and do not require the driver to have a commercial driver’s license. The utility of these vehicles is obvious; however, they are some of the most dangerous vehicles on the road. Lawyers in our firm have handled a number of cases involving the 15-passenger vans.
In the late 1970s, Ford and Dodge designed and released versions of the 15-passenger van that were modified versions of their already existing cargo vans. Both manufacturers extended their cargo van’s length, kept the original wheelbase, and added passenger seats. These alterations made an already rollover prone vehicle even more unstable. When a 15-passenger van is loaded with occupants, the vehicle’s center of gravity raises. Additionally, because the bulk of the seating is toward the rear of the vehicle, as more occupants are loaded into the vehicle, the weight becomes distributed more toward the rear.
Raising the vehicle’s center of gravity and distributing the weight toward the rear of the vehicle causes the vehicle to handle worse and be more prone to rollover. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 15-passenger vans with 10 or more occupants had a rollover rate nearly three times higher than one carrying fewer than five people.
Alarmingly, a vehicle that is advertised and sold for its ability to carry 15 passengers becomes three times more likely to roll over if fully loaded. As alarming as that proposition is, it is even more shocking that these dangerous characteristics were recognized early in the design of these vehicles and that numerous alternative designs have existed for years. As early as the 1970s, Ford engineers appreciated the lack of stability associated with the 15-passenger van.
In fact, one such engineer, who has since left Ford, recalled watching a 15-passenger van prototype show signs of instability on a test track prior to production. The engineer described watching a trained test driver struggle to maintain control of the prototype vehicle during a series of turning maneuvers. Internal Ford documents even show some of the engineers working on the 15-passenger van suggested extending the vehicle’s wheelbase, or adding dual rear tires as a means to address the unstable condition. These ideas were rejected by Ford.
On April 9, 2001, NHTSA issued a “consumer advisory” alerting the public about the increased rollover risk under certain conditions after reviewing nearly 10 years of statistics related to the vehicles. However, Ford is still producing virtually the same 15-passenger van that its engineers worried about in the late 1970s. These vans not only suffer from poor stability and a heightened propensity to rollover, but, to make matters worse, have weak roof structures and inadequate seat belts. In addition to being inherently dangerous due to their faulty design, many of these vehicles are poorly maintained, and driven by ordinary people not accustomed to operating such large vehicles. This deadly combination has resulted in catastrophic consequences. All too often those injured or killed are young adults and children due to the popularity of the vans by schools, day cares, camps, and churches.
These vehicles are common, and yet the dangers are not widely known. NHTSA warns those who travel in 15-passenger vans to not overload the vehicle, regularly maintain the vehicle, insure all tires are properly inflated and for occupants to wear their seatbelts. I would caution anyone to avoid these vehicles at all cost. The dangers are real and no amount of caution can prevent all accidents. If you need more information on this subject, contact Evan Allen, a lawyer in our Personal Injury and Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Evan.Allen@beasleyallen.com.
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