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Because they are inexpensive compared to school buses, vans have grown popular for transporting children, the elderly, sports teams and other groups. All three manufacturers of 15-seat vans marketed their vehicles for just such use. DaimlerChrysler stated that its van “can hold more than your daughter’s closet and carry as many as 15 happy campers.” General Motors has portrayed its van surrounded by a young ball team.
By 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was calling attention to what it termed “a disturbing trend in pupil transportation,” warning that school districts, day care centers, Head Start programs, contract transportation companies and others were hauling children in vans that “meet the federal definition of a bus but not the federal occupant crash protection standards of school buses.” (See below.)
A Few Among Many
• Birmingham, Alabama, July 20, 2002: Two college cheerleaders were killed and others injured when a Ford 15-passenger van overturned after its left rear tire lost its tread. The victims were all members of the North Carolina-based Christian Cheerleaders of America.
• Marianna, Florida, September 24, 2001: On State Road 8, the right rear tire separated on a 1990 Dodge 3500 van, causing the driver to lose control and the van to roll over. There were 10 Florida Baptist College students in the van, of which three were ejected and killed. The vehicle has severe steering and handling problems which have been well known to DaimlerChrysler. In addition, it possesses serious roll and lateral instability defects as a result of the addition of 10 or more passengers which causes the center of mass (or center of gravity) of the vehicle to move rearward and upward, with substantially more than one-half of vehicle's weight on the rear axle. (Hoffman v. DaimlerChrysler)
• Wichita Falls, Texas, May 2001: A 1993 Dodge Ram 3500 15-passenger van owned by the First Assembly of God Church of Burkburnett, Texas, was taking 12 women to an outlet mall when a tire lost its tread and the van overturned. The driver and three passengers were killed; eight others were severely injured. The case was the first to reach court since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warned consumers in April 2001 about the vans’ unsafe design (see below). The tire-maker, Michelin, asked the court to prohibit jurors from taking notes and to bar spectators while witnesses testified about some of its documents. Although Michelin dropped that motion, secrecy prevailed: details of the settlement were sealed and never made public.
• Arizona, Summer 2000: One student and the teacher-driver were killed when a 2000 Dodge van carrying 10 students from Chaminade High School on Long Island, on a tour of national historic sites, veered off a two-lane highway near the Grand Canyon and overturned. Police said the driver had “over-corrected” when the van left the pavement.
• Texas, February 2000: Four members of Prairie View A&M University’s track team were killed and seven injured when their van overturned en route to a meet. Much the same happened to a Wisconsin-Oshkosh swim team, the DePaul University women’s track team, and the Kenyon College swim team.
• East Dublin, Georgia, December 8, 1998: A 1995 Ford van carrying five 4- and 5-year-olds and one adult to a Head Start program reportedly ran a stop sign and crashed into a pickup truck. One 4-year-old was ejected and fatally injured. The van and truck both overturned. Eight van windows shattered.
• Bennettsville, South Carolina, February 16, 1998: A 1996 Dodge van carrying six children home from a church-run after-school program was hit by a tow truck after the van ran a stop sign, according to a witness. All six children, ages 7-11, were killed. Three were ejected from the van.
• Columbia, South Carolina, 1994: Jacob Strebler, 6, was killed on his way to swimming classes in a private school van hit by a truck. Experts determined he would not have been killed and may even have escaped serious injury had he been in a school bus that met federal safety standards. Too late to save his life, the state enacted a law in his name to prevent such deaths (see below).
The More, the Deadlier
As the death toll mounted, NHTSA analyzed 1,957 crashes that involved 15-passenger vans and discovered that the more passengers the van was carrying, the more likely it was to overturn:
• When fewer than five passengers were on board, 12.3 percent (224 of 1,815 crashes) of the vans overturned, about the same rate as that for light trucks.
• When carrying five to nine passengers, however, vans overturned 20.8 percent of the time (16 of 77 crashes).
• With 10-15 passengers aboard, the vans rolled over 29.1 percent of the time (16 of 55 crashes).
• And when carrying more than 15 passengers, they rolled over in crashes an astonishing 70 percent of the time (7 of 10).
Overall, the vans were three times more likely to roll over in a crash when loaded with 10 or more passengers than when they carried fewer than five.
Why the Carnage?
A major problem is that the 15-passenger van has a high center of gravity. That center shifts even higher and rearward as more occupants board. The rearward shift gives the van a propensity to “fishtail” and the upward shift increases its likelihood of overturning. The combination of lateral slide of the rear tires – fishtailing – and the “top-heavy” design compound the risk of rollover. Dangerous stability problems, not noticeable to average drivers, become all too apparent in emergency steering situations, such as swerving to avoid an obstacle or a sudden tire failure at highway speed. A van that is fishtailing is out of control. The more heavily loaded the van, the greater the gravity shift and the more likely it is to overturn, with tragic consequences.
Once the van does overturn, its occupants are exposed to even greater hazards than those of most vehicles:
• A lack of structural integrity that could protect the passenger compartment from collapse or intrusion.
• Inadequate crash padding that could protect passengers from being thrown against hard surfaces.
• Lack of laminated side windows that might “cushion” someone thrown against them rather than shatter and permit ejection.
• Lack of emergency exits and traffic-control safety features standard on regular school buses.
Such shortcomings make the 15-passenger van literally a death trap on wheels, a trap merely awaiting an opportunity to spring on unwary passengers and driver.
A History of Avoidance
How did a passenger vehicle marketed to carry groups of children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations become such an open threat to their lives? The answers are rooted in the vans’ history.
In the early 1970s, first Dodge, then Ford sought to accommodate emerging demand for a vehicle that could carry small groups of passengers. Instead of creating a new vehicle, they chose to modify existing cargo vans simply by making the body longer and installing seats for 15 passengers, without lengthening the wheel base. (Dodge ceased manufacturing its 15-passenger vans in June 2002, but many remain on the road.)
Ford chose to ignore its own engineers’ recommendations. Records show engineers recognized early the need to extend the wheel base and add dual rear wheels to prevent fishtailing. Videotaped tests demonstrate that using dual rear wheels would significantly reduce side sway and the tendency to “slide out.” It would also provide redundancy if a tire fails. The engineers’ recommendations were rejected because of the projected costs – an estimated $315 per vehicle – and production delays. As a result, the Ford E-350 SCW, which now controls most of the market, has remained essentially unchanged since 1979.
General Motors entered the 15-passenger market late, around 1990, by expanding its 12-passenger van to 15 passengers. Although GM did lengthen the vehicle’s wheel base, it did not bother to conduct any “side pull” tests on the vans, despite having performed such tests on other vehicles since the 1960s and despite advising NHTSA in 1973 that the tests were the “best approach to determine rollover resistance.” In fact, GM has known since the early 1980s that vans experience more rollovers and more occupant ejections in crashes, yet the auto maker has conducted no stability test of any kind on its 15-passenger GMC van. ...Click here to read the full article on SafetyForum