A recent string of deadly wrecks has raised alarm about the rollover risks of 15-passenger vans, which become more unstable when used for the very reason they are purchased: to carry large numbers of people.
Four people were killed and eight others injured on a church outing last month when their 15-passenger van flipped over near Wichita Falls, Texas. The same week, two members of a college fraternity were killed and 12 others injured in a van rollover in Arkansas. In Illinois, 11 people heading for a visit with prison inmates died earlier this year when their 15-seat van tumbled and was flattened by a Mack truck.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 14, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Passenger vans--An article in the June 17 Business section on the rollover risks of 15-passenger vans misstated the license requirements for drivers of the vans. In California, a Class B commercial license and passenger vehicle endorsement are required for drivers of vehicles designed to carry 10 or more people and operated for commercial purposes or by nonprofit groups.
And a van rollover on U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo County in October 1999 killed seven members of an Eagle Rock church and injured seven others.
From 1994 to 1999, 279 people perished and hundreds were hurt in single-vehicle rollovers of 15-passenger vans, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a federal database.
The large passenger vans, produced by Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and the Dodge division of DaimlerChrysler, are workhorses of corporate van pools and are widely used to shuttle college sports teams and church groups as well as pupils and preschoolers on field trips and after-school activities. But critics say their top-heavy design makes them particularly unforgiving in emergency steering maneuvers or when a tire fails or they skid on ice.
Patricia Sturns of Jasper, Texas, said she'll never get over the loss of her 20-year-old son, Samuel Jason Sturns, one of four members of the Prairie View A&M track team who died 16 months ago when a van carrying them to a track meet flipped over. Sturns said she had assumed the track team rode on regular buses with professional drivers, and never worried about her son's safety.
"It's heartbreaking, and it makes me as a parent want to tell other parents, 'Know what they're going in,' " she said.
Concern about the vans' stability has triggered government action.
In January, the Department of Health and Human Services ordered local Head Start programs to phase out use of the vans in favor of vehicles meeting all federal school bus safety standards. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating several recent van wrecks, has urged states to prohibit their use in local school transportation programs. And in April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an unusual consumer advisory, warning that the rollover risk of the vans becomes dramatically greater with 10 or more people on board.
Consumer advocates contend the vans are among the worst vehicles for rollover because of their propensity to tip and the large passenger loads they are meant to carry.
But makers of the vans defend them and blame most of the casualties on inexperienced drivers and failure of passengers to wear seat belts, rather than any inherent safety flaws.
The big vans "are extremely safe," said Sara Tatchio, safety communications manager for Ford, whose E350 Super Club Wagon, a people-hauling cousin of the Econoline cargo van, is the most popular of the 15-seaters.
"We feel they're safe vehicles when properly driven," said Dominick Infante of Chrysler, which makes the Dodge Ram Maxiwagon. But "this is a different kind of vehicle and needs to be treated" as such, Infante said.
A spokesman for General Motors, whose 15-seat models include the Chevrolet Express 3500, declined comment, saying, "We're not going to participate in this story."
Although the vans essentially are small buses, buyers or operators are not required to have a special license or training.
As a group, light trucks--including SUVs, pickups and vans--have an above-average risk of tipping over. And federal crash data show that the 15-seat vans, when carrying a light load, have about the same rollover risk as other light trucks--or about two to three times the rate of most passenger cars.
But when the vans are doing what they're made for--hauling large numbers of people--their stability is seriously compromised, a government study has shown.
When you "load a vehicle that's got a high center of gravity to begin with . . . you increase the potential for rollover for sure," said Joe Osterman, director of the office of highway safety at the National Transportation Safety Board.
Drawing on crash data from seven states, the study by NHTSA researchers compared the rollover rates of 15-passenger vans carrying 10 occupants or more with those carrying four occupants or fewer. According to the study, vans with heavy loads were more than twice as likely to flip over as ones with light loads.
The reason is that passengers ride above the center of gravity, so that each additional occupant makes a van more top-heavy and less stable. The same is true for other popular people-haulers, such as minivans and smaller passenger vans. But the NHTSA research showed that the pattern with the 15-seaters is more profound.