An Oregon firm is marketing axle spacers claiming they improve the handling characteristics of 15-passenger vans.

Grants Pass Firm Offers Antidote To Help Keep Vehicles Upright

By Jeff Duewel of the Daily Courier Grants Pass, Oregon

On June 21, 2002, a Grayback Forestry 15-passenger van crashed on a Colorado highway, killing five firefighters and injuring seven others. Today, the Merlin-based company has dumped the vans in favor of six-passenger trucks, and the driver of the van is enduring the anguish of a lawsuit.

That anguish has been felt many times in the U.S. 864 passengers in 15-passenger vans died between 1990 and 2000, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, 424 of them in single-vehicle rollover crashes.

The NHTSA issued consumer advisory warnings in 2001 and again in 2002 about the vans’ lack of safety, especially when fully loaded, which moves their center of gravity up and back. High-profile crashes such as Grayback’s and Prairie View A&M’s track and field team crash a year ago that killed five people have spawned numerous lawsuits. 60 Minutes II” addressed the issue in 2001.

A potentially fatal design flaw unequal wheel spacing, or track width, of the front and rear wheels is being ignored by the NHTSA, the vehicle manufacturers, and lawyers, says Grants Pass businessman Robert Hatchman.

A track width from 2.5 to 4 inches wider in the front than the rear causes the van to wander,” or have trouble staying in a straight line, especially on roads with irregularities, Hatchman said.

Hatchman believes this design flaw has contributed to rollovers when a driver overcorrects after veering. The design flaw also makes the vehicle less responsive, he says.

Hatchman’s company, CorrecTrack, manufactures CT Spacers, steel rings up to 2 inches thick installed on the brake drums to even out track width. They cost $350 a pair and take about an hour to install. He said he has sold more than 1,000 around the world.

People just don’t realize there is a problem,” said Hatchman, who believes the number of accidents could be cut in half if track widths were equal. A lot of things contribute to an accident. But track width is one of the most important. When the NHTSA started testing 15-passenger vans, I asked them, Did you ever notice that the front axle is actually wider than the rear?’ They said no.”‘

Manufacturers make the front track wider to either accommodate four-wheel drive or the extra space needed in a van because of engine placement. But the rear axles are often left at standard widths.

The NHTSA estimates there are 500,000 15-passenger vans on the road in the United States. Of them, the Ford E-350 has a 2.5 inch track width difference. The Dodge 3500, which is no longer manufactured as a 15-passenger van, is 4 inches off. Older Chevrolet 3500 vans are off by 4 inches, although the newer models have a 1 inch wider rear track.

It’s not just vans. Many of the larger Ford, Chevy and GMC four-wheel drive pickups, especially before 1999, and Class B motor homes have the same problem. Pleasure Way Industries, a leading manufacturer of Class B motor homes, uses CT Spacers on its vehicles with Dodge chassis.

Vehicle specifications often don’t include track widths. If a driver wants to see the difference, Hatchman recommends placing a tape measure in a groove of a tire and measuring to the corresponding groove on the other side. Then do the same on the rear, using the same grooves.

Hatchman noticed several years ago he had trouble with his Chevrolet Suburban, especially when he was towing a trailer. As a car buff who has made a career of restoring Porsches, he quickly found the source of poor handling: unequal track width.

We put spacers on our own vehicles in 1994, and in 97 we decided the problem was so bad that everybody needed them, and we started producing the spacers,” Hatchman said.

GHR Fire Management Service of Klamath Falls, a contract forestry company similar to Grayback, put spacers on all 10 of its vans.

We were having problems with the vans swaying,” said Nelda Herman, co-owner of GHR. We checked tire pressure, tie rods, and nothing worked. When we put on the spacers it made all the difference in the world. All the drivers, across the board, said the vans handled better.”

The overwhelming majority of the approximately 100 product evaluation questionnaires sent back to CorrecTrack said handling, drivability and cornering were improved by the spacers.

I was driving a death trap,” wrote one customer.

But no one in the industry is putting much emphasis on track width differences, instead pointing to many other variables in a crash, including tire pressure, weight distribution, driver error and road conditions, among others. According to the NHTSA, 80 percent of people killed in 15-passenger van wrecks were not wearing seat belts, inflating the rate of fatalities with the vans compared to other vehicles.

The agency does not believe that these minor differences in track width is the cause of the safety problem, and therefore, the front and rear track widths is simply averaged together in the computation of the rollover metric static stability factor,” wrote L. Robert Shelton, executive director of the NHTSA, in a letter to Hatchman in July 2001.

We have said all along that these vehicles aren’t inherently unsafe,” added Rae Tyson, spokesman for the NHTSA. But they are often being driven by inexperienced drivers, and an overwhelming majority of people who died were not wearing safety belts. If you remove those two from the equation, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

Pinhas Barak, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University (formerly the General Motors Institute) said many cars have a track width difference of 1 or 2 inches.

Four inches is big, in my opinion,” Barak said. You would have to do testing or simulation. I would think it would have an effect. The magnitude, I don’t know.”

Hatchman said a small track width difference in a car, which has a low center of gravity, is far less of a problem than an SUV or van with a track width difference of more than 2 inches.

Daimler-Chrysler tested the CT Spacers on its 15-passenger vans in 2000 and 2001, but the company ended tests shortly before the release of the NHTSA’s van warnings in April 2001. It no longer makes the 15-passenger van, although its Class B motor home uses the van chassis.

Daimler-Chrysler would not comment on the spacers, because of ongoing litigation. But Daimler-Chrysler said in a letter to Hatchman that the spacers put undue stress on the vehicle’s rear axle system.

Hatchman is so confident his spacers do not compromise the safety of the axle he has a 100,000-mile rear-axle bearing warranty. The spacers are also used only on full-floating rear axles with two bearings per side, he said, and are secured with eight lugs.

Hatchman would like any clubs or churches that use the 15-passenger vans to be aware of the problem. He has written to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., about the problem.

All I know is I’ve got something to fix the problem,” Hatchman said. Once people look at the situation, we’ll save lives.”

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