15-Passenger Van Deaths Rise, Despite Warnings

Reprinted from The Safety Record, V3, Issue 3, Nov. / Dec. 2006

CROWNSVILLE, MD - Despite the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's assertions to the contrary, their warnings about the rollover propensities of 15-passenger vans have not stemmed the death toll, according to a new analysis of government data.

Statistician Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation says that the cumulative rate of deaths in 15-passenger van rollovers has actually risen since NHTSA started issuing the first of four consumer advisories from 2001 to 2005. One third of all the 15-passenger van rollover deaths since 1982 occurred after April 9, 2001, when the federal government first started warning the public about the vehicle's hazards, once loaded to capacity with occupants and cargo.

Source:  Randy & Alice Whitfield, Quality Control Systems Corp.

Source: Randy & Alice Whitfield, Quality Control Systems Corp.

These crashes killed 1,036 persons and caused incapacitating injuries to an additional 1,820, Whitfield found. More than 5,500 persons were involved in fatal rollovers as drivers or passengers in the vans, of whom only 250 were uninjured - even when seat belts were used. Because the victims were relatively young, Whitfield calculated that 35,219 premature years of life (before age 70) have been lost in all rollovers of 15-passenger vans.

Whitfield sifted through 652 fatal rollover crashes that occurred between 1982 and 2005 in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System involving the Chevrolet Truck Express Van 3500 Extended, Chevrolet Truck Sportvan 1-Ton Extended, the Dodge Truck B350/B3500 Van (Bus), the Ford Truck E350, the Econoline Super Club Wagon, the GMC Truck Rally Van 1-Ton Extended, and the GMC Truck Savana Van 3500 Extended.

NHTSA, however, using a smaller subset of the same data, had come to the opposite conclusion. In a May 2005 press release, the agency reported that: "the public is responding to safety information about 15-passenger vans. Fatalities from 15-passenger van rollover crashes have declined 35 percent since advisories began in 2001."

"Their results were just wrong," Whitfield asserted. "I talked to them about it and they admitted it, but they never corrected their published research. The question is: What's causing this to rise? When we studied the data, it showed no change in the numbers of people; no evidence that the vans were any less full than they had been."

Whitfield did note that between 2004 and 2005, there was a decline in fatalities from 45 to 32. He identified DaimlerChrysler's decision to discontinue production of the Dodge 15 passenger vans as a possible contributing factor to that drop.

NHTSA has launched other studies on 15-passenger vans. The most recent report examined tire maintenance on 15-passenger vans and found that 74 percent of all 15-passenger vans had significantly mis-inflated tires, increasing the prospect of a rollover crash. By contrast, 39 percent of passenger cars were found with significant inflation problems.

An earlier study looked at the effect of occupancy on rollover rates and found a that when loaded to above half their seating capacity, 15-passenger vans had 2.2 times the rollover rate as compared to when they were loaded to or below half their designed seating capacity.

In its advisories, NHTSA has repeatedly dispensed advice to consumers, recommending that all occupants wear safety belts; that drivers of 15-passenger are trained and experienced; that tire pressures are checked at least once a week and that no loads are placed on the van roof.

To date, Whitfield said, the agency has not published any research linking changes in consumer behavior to the 15-passenger van rollover rate.

"It would be one thing for them to prove this triumph, were the public actually doing what they said," Whitfield said. "The danger is that NHTSA will believe its own public relations and that it will influence policies under the feeling that they are doing the right thing."

Fatal Rollovers in 15-Passenger Vans, 1982-2005; Source:  Randy & Alice Whitfield, Quality Control Systems Corp.

Source: Randy & Alice Whitfield, Quality Control Systems Corp.

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., 2006

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