The danger of a 15-passenger van rollover is great, and finally safety concerns are beginning to be seriously addressed. In 1971, the full size Dodge Ram Wagon passenger van, one of the oldest 15-passenger vans, was put in the showroom. Since then, 15-passenger vans have been responsible for thousands of deaths while the large vehicles transport children to sporting events and church outings and airport passengers to hotels and seniors on special outings. The National Highways Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a consumer safety advisory in April 2001 and April 2002, warning of the deadly dangers of 15-passenger van rollovers and crashes, but still the vehicles continued to be exempt from numerous federal safety standards.
Rollover accidents in all types of vehicles led to more than 10,000 highway deaths in 2003. According to the NHTSA, between 1990 and 2001, 1,003 people died in 15-passenger van crashes, including 316 15-passenger van rollovers. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found 15-passenger vans are involved in a greater number of single-vehicle accidents resulting in rollover crashes than any other passenger vehicles.
The likelihood of a rollover in a fully loaded 15-passenger van is about five times greater than when a van contains only a driver because the high center of gravity that makes the 15-passenger van unstable. When the vehicle is moving at speeds over 50 miles per hour and on curved roads, the risk of a 15-passenger van rollover increases significantly. The automotive industry has been criticized for knowing the dangers of the 15-passenger vans and the chances of them rolling over yet failing to make any significant safety changes to them.
In September 2003, the NHTSA issued an Action Plan for 15-passenger Van Safety, calling for additional research, evaluation of a rollover hazard label for the vans and other measures. By February 2004, the Senate passed S.1072, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA 2003). The cost for manufacturers to correct problems with the 15-passenger vans that would make rollovers and fatality less a risk are minimal, yet manufacturers have so far done little to change the vehicles because doing so, according to critics, would be admitting a defective product.
In October 2004, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a study saying stability control systems could save up to 7,000 lives each year if they were standard equipment on all vehicles. Developed in the mid-1990s, stability control systems use sensors on the accelerator, brakes and steering wheel to calculate a driver’s intended path. If the vehicle begins veering off the road, a computer adjusts the speed of one or more wheels to help the driver regain control. The widespread use of stability control in the U.S. has been much slower than in Europe or Japan because the automakers that have offered stability control thus far have done so as an option or available in a package of luxury equipment.
Every day in the U.S., 118 people die in vehicle crashes. The NTSB recommended in April 2004 that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, in response to its investigation of the fatal crash of a child care center’s 15-passenger van, require that all vehicles carrying 10 or more passengers transporting children to and from school and school related activities comply with school bus structural standards or equivalent safety standards. In addition, recommendations that manufacturers make lap and shoulder belts adjustable since seat belts in 15-passenger vans are designed to fit poorly were made. In June 2004, Public Citizen consumer’s group’s President Joan Claybrook offered testimony before the Senate urging crucial new protections for 15-passenger vans. Since then, some car manufacturers have announced it will implement stability control.