NHTSA Issues Eighth Consumer Advisory about Dangers of 15-Passenger Vans

On March 1, the Epicenter of Worship Church held a prayer vigil for Omberi Erasto, the 18-year-old East Lansing High School student who died in a 15-passenger van rollover crash last month. Erasto was one of 17 occupants in a 2002 Chevrolet Express homeward bound on I-96 after a choir performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The left rear tire of the Express failed, leading to a loss-of-control crash that left several passengers severely injured, including Erasto’s younger sister, who lost her leg.

Two weeks later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, issued yet another warning about the proper use of a 15 passenger van, in advance of the “spring driving season.” The agency is, once again, urging “colleges, church groups, and other users of 15-passenger vans to take specific steps to keep drivers and passengers safe.”

This is the agency’s eighth consumer advisory about the dangers of 15-passenger vans since 2001. The number one tip? Never overload a 15-passenger van because they “are particularly sensitive to loading.”

Funny, though, the agency neglects to define “overload” for the consumers they presumably want to warn. Fifteen-passenger vans have the dubious distinction of being a vehicle that is inherently unsafe if used for its intended purpose. Back in 2001, the agency issued specific information related to overloading, and emphasized the deadly consequences of failing to heed this warning:

“The results of a recent analysis by NHTSA revealed that 15-passenger vans have a rollover risk that is similar to other light trucks and vans when carrying a few passengers. However, the risk of rollover increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five occupants to over ten passengers. In fact, 15-passenger vans (with 10 or more occupants) had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded. NHTSA’s analysis revealed that loading the 15-passenger van causes the center of gravity to shift rearward and upward increasing the likelihood of rollover. The shift in the center of gravity will also increase the potential for loss of control in panic maneuvers.”

Now, consumers get a vague: Don’t overload the van. It’s sensitive – which is odd, because NHTSA sets great store by the efficacy of its warnings. In 2005, it bragged 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.” In 2009, the agency again touted the steady decline in fatalities since 2001.

But, the decline in deaths has not been steady. Statistician Randy Whitfield, of Quality Control Systems Corp., who has published a statistical analysis of cumulative death rate of 15-passenger vans has noted 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 during 1982-2009 (454 of 1,153) occurred after the first Consumer Advisory was issued by NHTSA in 2001.”

And any decline is more likely attributable to other factors – such as Dodge’s decision to get out of the 15-passenger van business and Ford and General Motors’ decisions to make Electronic Stability Control standard in later model 15-passenger vans.  So, warnings, coupled with the retirement of the older, less safe vans, are the agency’s only real action items in its apparent strategy of managed attrition.

According to NHTSA, as of July 1, 2007 there were about 564,000 15-passenger vans registered in the US, and only 7 percent of the fleet was 2004 or newer. That percentage has no doubt grown over the last five years, but there’s also likely to be a healthy percentage of pre-2004 model year vans, that are now five years older.