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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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In the Wake of another Fatal Accident, Safety of Some Vans Once Again Questioned

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An investigation is underway by the Florida Highway Patrol and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into what caused a 15-passenger van to plunge into a ravine, killing eight members of a Palm Beach, Florida church. It appears the driver went through a stop sign and the vehicle had too many passengers on board. The 58-year-old driver was among those killed.

Federal transportation officials have warned about the potential instability of 15-passenger vans for over a decade. According to safety advocates, these vans have a known propensity to roll, causing fatalities especially when heavily loaded. Due to weight, they also tend to roll if the tires are not properly inflated. While these were not factors in this recent accident, officials say the crash illustrates how such vans are hard to control in an emergency.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), tire failures are the most common cause of rollover accidents in these larger vans; the rollover rate is three times more likely than with small, five-passenger vans. Originally manufactured as cargo vans, these vehicles were never redesigned to safely transport people. Because the rear of these vans extend 4 to 5 1/2 feet beyond the rear wheels, any loading of five or more people or luggage/equipment causes instability during emergency maneuvers such as sudden turns or stops. This can cause the vans to fishtail, and being top heavy and overloaded in the rear, can lead to a rollover accident. For these reasons and more, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has repeatedly warned about 15-passenger vans, most often used by churches, daycares, senior centers, schools, and airport shuttle services. Some insurance companies even refuse to insure these vans.

If these vans are known to be unstable and roll, shouldn’t it be mandated that the auto manufacturer be required to build a safer van? Shouldn’t these vans be recalled and retrofitted for improved stability? In a report by Public Citizen, entitled Stopping Rollovers: The Dual Wheel Solution, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation were asked to completely redesign future 15-passenger vans to reduce their rollover propensity and to improve their now inadequate crashworthiness. As a short term fix, the auto manufacturers were asked to retrofit existing 15-passenger vans with dual rear wheels in order to mitigate the high susceptibility of these vehicles to rollover. The retrofit was estimated at $300-400 per vehicle. General Motors and Ford refused.

What can owners do? Ideally, anyone owning one of these vans should take it out-of-service and use a small school bus for group transportation. For those that must continue to use these dangerous vehicles, the NHTSA and NTSB recommend the following safety precautions.

  • Screen all drivers: it is best to require that drivers obtain a commercial driver’s license.
  • Remove the rear seat of the vans to reduce loading behind the vehicle’s rear axle.
  • Keep passenger loads light. Limit the capacity to no more than 9 persons, including the driver.
  • Load forward seats first at all times. When the van is not full, passengers should sit in seats that are in front of the rear axle.
  • Position cargo ahead of the rear axle and do not use roof storage or tow anything behind the van (the vehicle owner’s manual has maximum weight of passengers and cargo specifications)
  • Conduct a full safety inspection of the vehicle, including all tires, pre- and post-trip. Replace tires per manufacturer guidelines regardless of tread depth – tires lose their integrity with age, which is also why it is important to avoid using old spares.
  • Include safety items on board, such as a fire extinguisher, first aid kit and cellular phone.
  • Require all passengers and the driver to wear proper safety restraints any time the vehicle is in motion.
  • Watch speed and road conditions – rollover risk increases significantly at speeds over 50 mph.

No matter what the outcome of the investigation, safety clearly could have saved lives.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.