Are 15-passenger Vans Safe?

More than 864 people have died in the US since 1990 in 15-passenger van accidents. Last year the National Highways Transportation Safety Association issued its second safety adisory to van operators following the vehicle rollover deaths of five contract wildfire fighters in Colorado.

Since the 90s there has be a continuing controversy about the safety of 15-passenger vans in Canada and the US. Because the vans kill people in clusters—usually church groups, college sports teams, forestry crews etc.—they have attracted attention and the growing belief by some that the vans themselves are unsafe.

Last year five contract fire fighters died in Colorado when their 15-passenger van left the road. One treeplanting van driver died near Williams Lake a year ago. And seven young planters died in Alberta in the early nineties in a similar van accident.

All totalled in the U.S. 864 people have died in 15-passenger vans between 1990 and 2000 with about half of them involved in single-vehicle rollovers. This continuing trend plus the Colorado tragedy prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Association to take the unusual step last spring of issuing its second cautionary warning to users of 15-passenger vans.

The NHTSA noted “research has shown that 15-passenger vans have a roll-over risk that increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than ten. In fact, 15-passenger vans with ten or more occupants had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded.”

Lawyers of the victims who have sued the vehicle manufactures have been less circumspect saying the vans are designed to kill people when they are fully loaded. Because of the long extension of the body behind the rear axle vans do not handle safely and quickly go out of control they say.

In a series of investigations conducted in a lawsuit against Ford, and dismissed by the manufacturer as a “stunt,” vans rigged as if fully loaded were put through a series of maneuvers. The tests, which can be seen as part of a 2001 Sixty Minutes documentary, showed vans going into rollovers at speeds as low as 65 kilometers per mile. In this case Ford lost the $20-million lawsuit. Ford has issued a cautionary warning of its own regarding the handling characteristics of their 15-passenger vans but denies the vehicles are unsafe.

Fifteen passenger vans are not legal for public school bus transportation in the U.S. and the BC Ministry of Forest will not allow them on wildfires. Last year the Pacific North West USDA Forest Service discontinued the use of its fleet of 15-passenger vans until drivers were retrained and tighter operating rules implemented.

Approximately 80 percent of 15-passenger van accident victims in the U.S. are not seat-belted with more than half of them thrown out of the vehicle. Over the past decade 92 per cent of belted occupants have survived crashes.

Operating vehicles with ten or less passengers and seating them ahead of the rear axle are recommended along with special driver training for operators. Roof racks that further raise the centre of gravity need to be reconsidered. Tires unfit for rough road operations could prove fatal.

A firm in Oregon, called CorrecTrack, believes the handling problem results from the difference between the front and back axle widths of 15 passenger vans. In some vehicles this difference can be as much as four inches between the wider front axle and the narrower rear. This difference causes the vehicle to wander and is the design flaw responsible for the many accidents says the manufacturer who sells a steel spacer to equalize the difference.

Developing and delivering special driver training by next year for bush roads and silvicultural crews is a strategic priority of the Forest Industry Safety Association who’s mandate now includes the silviculture industry.

For more information on the 15 passenger controversy visit the WSCA website at www.wfca.ca and look under “Resources.”

To track the after-market axle spacers visit www.correcttrack.com