Federal safety regulators issued an extraordinary third public advisory June 2 about the potential dangers of driving and riding in 15-passenger vans, according to an article in the Detroit News.
New research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that the risk of a rollover in a 15-passenger van increases dramatically at speeds over 50 miles per hour and on curved roads. At the same time, a passenger’s chances of survival in a rollover crash involving a large van are greatly enhanced by the use of seat belts, the agency said. “It is important that 15-passenger vans be operated by trained, experienced drivers,” NHTSA said in issuing the advisory. “It also is vitally important that institutions using 15-passenger vans require safety belt use at all times.” The vans are popular with church and school groups, which often must rely on affordable, convenient transportation. The vans are an attractive option, because they can be legally driven by anyone with a regular driver’s license. But based on fatal accidents in recent years, the vans are often operated by drivers who don’t have any special training. Government data show there were 1,576 fatal crashes involving 15-passenger vans that killed 1,111 people from 1990 through 2002. NHTSA also released new test results that show electronic stability control may improve driver handling of the vans under certain conditions. General Motors Corp. began offering stability control as a standard feature on its Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans this year. Ford, which controls 53 percent of the 15-passenger van market, is planning to offer stability control on its E-350, Econoline, and Club Wagon vans in the 2006 model year, reported the Detroit News.
Despite the unprecedented third consumer advisory, NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said there was nothing to suggest there is a manufacturing defect with the vans. The agency, he said, is not looking at proposing new regulations to address engineering or design flaws. “There is nothing inherently unsafe about 15-passenger vans,” Tyson said. “People have to realize these are 10,000-pound vehicles. They need to be driven like the trucks that they are.” Among NHTSA’s latest findings: The likelihood of a rollover involving a van increases fivefold at speeds of 50 mph or greater. On curves, the vans were twice as likely to roll than on straight roadway.
Seat belts have the biggest impact on protecting 15-passenger van occupants. Only 14 percent of those killed between 1990 and 2002 were wearing seat belts. About 61 percent of occupants killed were ejected. The ejection rate was 72 percent for unrestrained occupants and only 18 percent for those wearing seat belts.
In all conditions, the risk of rollover increases greatly as the vans become fully loaded, NHTSA said. When a 15-passenger van is fully occupied, it is five times more likely to roll over than when the driver is the only occupant. By contrast, an SUV or minivan was twice as likely to roll over when fully loaded.
The danger of a rollover goes up even when a 15-passenger van is half-loaded. At half of their designed seating capacity, the rollover rate was 2.2 times that of vans with seven or fewer passengers.