According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there were 1,512 fatal accidents involving 15-passenger vans between 1994 and 2004. In 2004 alone, 120 occupants of 15-passenger vans died in crashes involving these vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cautions that 15-passenger vans are not like smaller passenger vans; they have a higher rate of rollover under certain conditions and necessitate greater attention to tire maintenance and road conditions.

These vehicles pose such a concern that NHTSA published an action plan for 15-passenger van safety in 2003. The agency has completed the majority of planned projects; however, rulemaking to improve roof crush resistance and mitigate occupant ejections remain on the action list. Moreover, conventional 12- to 15-passenger vans are not certified to meet NHTSA standards and therefore cannot be sold or leased as new vehicles to transport students on a regular basis.

15-Passenger Vans Have Inherent Safety Problems

Recent NHTSA research indicates that the risk of a rollover crash is greatly increased when 10 or more people ride in a 15-passenger van. Because of its design, passenger weight raises the van’s center of gravity and causes it to shift rearward, making the van less resistant to rollover and more difficult to control in an emergency situation. Placing luggage or equipment on the roof also raises the center of gravity and likelihood of a rollover. The end of the van extends far beyond the rear wheels, increasing the risk of fishtailing, which can also lead to a rollover.

Despite these known dangers, some schools, businesses and other organizations keep using 15-passenger vans. Named target audiences of the NHTSA 15-passenger van outreach plan include:

  • Churches and religious or community groups
  • Colleges, universities and school systems
  • Daycare facilities and Head Start programs
  • YMCA and summer camp organizations
  • Military branches and Veterans Affairs medical centers
  • Migrant workers, primarily in the southwest
  • Manufacturers

Recent Accidents

Alexis “Lexie” James was 10 when she died after a 15-passenger van blew a tire and overturned in South Carolina. She was ejected even though she wore a seatbelt. In 2008, seven basketball players and a teacher were killed in a 15-passenger van crash in New Brunswick. And as recently as August 2, 2010, Early Graves frontman Makh Daniels was killed when he was ejected from a 2003 Chevrolet extended van pulling a utility trailer. He was in the cargo area of the van and was not wearing a seatbelt.

Fatal rollovers of 15-passenger vans are most likely to involve tire failures, especially including underinflated tires or tires used past effective service life. Defective tires also contribute to the dangers. Crain’s Cleveland Business states that the Nevada Supreme Court recently upheld a $32.2 million jury award against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in a wrongful death case. A tire blowout caused a 15-passenger van to roll over, killing three of the van’s occupants and injuring the remaining seven. One occupant, a 14-year-old boy, was left in a permanent vegetative state.

NHTSA estimates that approximately 550,000 12- and 15- passenger vans are on the road, many of which do not have the safety features required on newer vehicles. Moreover, Florida law does not require backseat passengers to wear seatbelts as long as they are over the age of 18. Over 80 percent of people killed in rollover crashes in 15-passenger vans were not wearing seatbelts, and NHTSA estimates that people who wear their seat belts are about 75 percent less likely to be killed in a rollover crash than people who do not.

Passengers who have been injured in a 15-passenger van accident should consult with a personal injury lawyer promptly about whether they may be entitled to compensation for their medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Parents of children who have been injured in a 15-passenger van rollover should know that while an attorney cannot take away the pain a child is suffering, the attorney can function as an advocate for the victim and demand compensation from the negligent party.

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