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Auto Makers Urged to Make Vans Safer

November 13, 2002|Eddy Ramirez | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A consumer group urged two major automobile makers Tuesday to begin installing a second set of rear wheels on 15-passenger vans to prevent the kind of rollover accidents that have killed at least 424 people since 1990.

Public Citizen said replacing the current axle on the back of the van with one that would hold four wheels, instead of the usual two, could stabilize the vehicles, making them less prone to rollover crashes.

Fifteen-passenger vans are commonly used to transport student groups, farm workers and church organizations. There are about 500,000 such vehicles on the road, federal figures show. Ford Motor Co. builds the most 15-passenger vans, while General Motors Corp. has a smaller share of the market. Both manufacturers maintain that their 15-passenger vans are safe as long as qualified drivers are behind the wheel, all occupants wear seat belts and the vans are not overloaded.

Ben Hogan, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney who has represented victims of van rollover crashes, said the concept of an extra set of rear wheels "is not something the lawyers or safety advocates invented. The manufacturers have known about this for years but done nothing to make these vehicles safer."

In addition to the deaths that have resulted from rollover crashes, hundreds of other people have been injured, according to federal figures. Putting 10 or more passengers in the vans increases the risk of rollover because it has the effect of raising the vehicles' already high center of gravity, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Lawyers for Public Citizen showed video footage Tuesday of a van turning sharply. In one demonstration, when the van was equipped with single rear tires, the front and rear right tires left the ground. However, in another demonstration of the same maneuver, the vehicle was equipped with dual rear tires on each side, and all the tires remained on the ground.

Calling the retrofit "a simple fix," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said it would only cost manufacturers about $135 per vehicle.

"That's absolutely not true," said Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio. "We would have to completely redesign the body of the van. Then, it would not be a 15-passenger van."

Tatchio said the manufacturer is looking into other safety technologies, such as wheel sensors that monitor tire rotation and the steering impulse, giving drivers better control.

"We're not saying that dual rear wheels would not add extra stability," Tatchio said. "But it's just not that simple."

General Motors also backed the safety of its two 15-passenger van models, saying they already have the longest wheel base in the industry. The longer base -- the distance between the front and rear tires -- increases stability.

"These are the best features that we have to offer and make this a safe and reliable vehicle," said GM spokesman Jim Schell. Earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the chief executives of both companies look into technologies that allow drivers to maintain better control of these vehicles.

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