15 Passenger Vans: Still Dangerous After All These Years

Saturday’s 15-passenger van crash that killed six and injured eight members of a Bronx church is a somber reminder that the vehicle remains the only one in the U.S. fleet today that is deadly if used as a 15-passenger van. NHTSA long-ago whiffed on recalling the unstable vehicles, instead relying on manufacturers’ good intentions and consumer warnings, and the preventable carnage continues.

The 1997 Ford Econoline van, loaded with 14 members of the Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies and their luggage, was on its way to a church event in Schenectady, NY when the left rear tire failed on the New York Thruway. The van rolled over, scattering occupants and suitcases on the median.

The tragedy drew a swift and strong reaction from safety advocates, who have been lobbying NHTSA to impose requirements on 15-passenger vans that would make them more stable. But the agency has stuck close to the path of least resistance, issuing consumer advisories instead of compelling manufacturers to offer more substantive remedies.

“This is a vehicle that by all measures – including NHTSA’s – that has been found as unsafe for its intended purpose and still remains on the road. This is the classic example of having a defect that is too big to recall” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies.

The Tire Did it!

Caught in a public relations squall, Ford turned to its favorite scapegoat: the tire. (Hey, it worked for the Explorer.) A spokesman blamed a badly maintained tire, and said the vehicle was safe when the vans are “properly maintained, driven safely by experienced drivers and when occupants wear their safety belts”  Ford further defended itself by pointing out that it gives its customers “tips” on how to avoid rollovers in the owner’s manual and has placed a warning on the driver-side visor and the rollover risk. Tips! Labels! Awesome! Well, as one former president declared: “Mission Accomplished!”

Statistician Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, who has been studying the government fatality data involving 15-passenger vans, says that about 15 percent of the fatal rollovers are reportedly linked to a tire failure.

Whitfield’s latest update on 15-passenger van fatalities shows that from “1982 through 2008, there have been 724 fatal rollovers of 15-passenger vans in which an occupant of the van was killed in the United States. These crashes killed 1,153 persons and incapacitatingly injured an additional 1,957. More than six thousand persons have been involved in fatal rollovers as drivers or passengers in the vans, of whom only 305 were known to be uninjured in these crashes.”

Whitfield obtained these figures using data from the 1982-2008 Fatality Analysis Reporting System database and “involved model year 1981-2008 vans manufactured by Ford, Dodge / DaimlerChrysler, and General Motors / Chevrolet.”

With the regularity of swallows returning to Capistrano, NHTSA has been issuing Consumer Advisories warning the public about the dangers of 15-passenger vans every May from 2001 to 2009. This spring, the agency, deluged with announcing Toyota misdeeds and cheerleading distracted driving countermeasures, skipped it.

Its last official press release in 2009 touted a steady decline in the number of deaths in 15-passenger van crashes since they began issuing warnings, but Whitfield says that the decline has not been consistent: “Annual fatalities in 2007 and 2008 were about half of the totals in the peak years of 2000 and 2001. However, the number of persons killed actually increased in 2004, 2007, and 2008 compared with the previous years. 39% of all of the 15-passenger van rollover fatalities since 1982 (454 of 1,153) occurred after the first Consumer Advisory was issued by NHTSA in 2001.”

“Despite these many advisories, the vans have continued to roll over in fatal crashes,” Whitfield says.

In 2005, NHTSA hung its own “Mission Accomplished” banner. Using a smaller subset of the same data, it announced: “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.” If that’s true, the agency has yet to publish any study linking changes in consumer behavior to the 15-passenger van rollover rate.

Its latest Research Note, Fatalities to Occupants of 15-Passenger Vans, 2003-2007, published in May 2009, the agency pointed to actual regulations that may contribute to a future decline in the fatal rollover rate for 15-passenger vans – new standards requiring electronic stability control and tire pressure monitoring systems, and amendments to existing standards, requiring improvements to tires, rear sear shoulder lap belts, and door locks.

Manufacturers – no doubt driven by bad press and litigation – began to make some of changes ahead of mandatory phase-ins.  The first GM 15-passenger vans with ESC came out in model year 2004, and became standard in 2005. Ford – the self-proclaimed safety leader –trailed, equipping its 15-passenger vans with ESC in model year 2006. Rear-seat shoulder-lap belts were not implemented on Ford vans until 2008. GM installed them in 2004. In model year 2007, Ford and GM began adding advanced air bags.

But, what to do about all of those older 15-passenger vans, still regularly pressed into service? According to NHTSA, as of July 1, 2007 the there were about 564,000 15-passenger vans registered in the US, and only 7 percent of the fleet was 2004 or newer.

The members of the Joy Fellowship Christian Assemblies were in a 1997 Ford Econoline, without electronic stability control or advanced airbags. Hell, a 1997 Ford Econoline only had lap belts in all of the inboard rear positions.

Guess for those folks warnings and tips will just have to do.