For some time now, media has highlighted accidents in fifteen-passenger vans. We’ve talked about it here in CampLine. We’ve offered camps numerous resources upon which to rely in making their decision about transportation. We’ve updated you on what insurance companies are saying. What more can be said? Well, here’s what we know:

On November 1, 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a safety recommendation to the Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation:

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that manufacturers of fifteen-passenger vans evaluate, in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and test as appropriate, the potential of technological systems, particularly electronic stability control systems, to assist drivers in maintaining control of fifteen-passenger vans.1

According to the NTSB, various technological systems have been developed to assist drivers in maintaining control of a vehicle. These include: antilock brakes, traction control, lane departure systems, and electronic stability systems (ECS). ECS systems are computer-controlled systems that attempt to stabilize the vehicle by monitoring a vehicle’s movement and the direction the driver is steering. If driver inputs and vehicle response do not correspond, computer controls intervene to enhance the driver’s ability to maintain control of the vehicle by selectively braking individual wheel(s) or changing power applied to the wheels.2 The NTSB wants manufacturers to test the viability of using these technological systems on fifteen-passenger vans.

In lawsuits by injured passengers and families of loved ones who have died, it has been alleged that the vans are defective because they are unduly susceptible to rollover. According to government statistics, at least 424 persons have been killed and hundreds injured in rollover crashes involving the large, heavy vans since 1990.3 Recent, high-profile crashes in 2002 include:

  • On September 12, fourteen loggers from Honduras and Guatemala perished in northern Maine when their 2002 Dodge fifteen-passenger van slipped off a one-lane bridge into a remote river — the single deadliest crash in state history.
  • On August 24, in the Bay Area of California, the driver of a Ford E-350 on his way to an amusement park while on Highway 101 in Redwood City swerved to avoid a car in the lane he was changing into and lost control. The van turned over several times, ejecting eight riders, two of whom suffered critical head injuries.
  • In July, a Ford Super Club Wagon van carrying six cheerleaders rolled over near Birmingham, Alabama. Five passengers were ejected; two were killed. The others suffered injuries ranging from a dislocated hip to partial paralysis.
  • Five firefighters from Oregon who were traveling toward a massive wildfire south of Denver, Colorado, were killed in June when their twenty-one-year-old colleague and driver reportedly reached for something inside the fifteen-passenger van — a Ford E-350 — allowing the van to drift into the median, and then he overcorrected, which caused the van to roll over four times.

Another lawsuit may well become ground-breaking. On May 8, 2001, twelve women were driving to a Gainesville, Texas, outlet mall in a church-owned van when one of its Michelin XCH4 tires suddenly lost its tread. The driver could not bring the 1993 Dodge Ram under control. The Dodge Ram quickly crossed into the center median and rolled over several times. The driver and three passengers were killed, and other passengers were disabled. Eleven victims or their families are suing DaimlerChrysler AG, the maker of the Dodge Ram 3500 van, and Michelin for product liability. The plaintiffs alleged that DaimlerChrysler was aware of the possibility of a tire failure and how difficult the vehicle would be to handle in that event, but failed to provide proper warning about the risks of driving the van.4 This Texas case is expected to be the first of its kind to be decided by a jury. If the jury sides with the plaintiffs, commentators have suggested it could lead to a recall or redesign of large vans.5

Federal law prohibits the sale of fifteen-passenger vans for school-related transport of students in high school or younger. There is no prohibition for college-age students or other passengers.6

On April 15, 2002, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), issued a warning to users of fifteen-passenger vans because of an increased rollover risk under certain conditions. A similar warning was issued in 2001. The safety agency reported that fifteen-passenger vans have a rollover risk that increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than ten.

Fifteen-passenger vans, with ten occupants, had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded. When carrying fifteen passengers, the vans are almost six times as likely to roll over.7

The increased risk in fully loaded vans was found attributable to a higher center of gravity, making the vans more susceptible to rolling over. The greater passenger weight in a fully loaded van raises the van’s center of gravity and shifts it rearward. As a result, the van has less resistance to rollover and handles differently from other commonly driven passenger vehicles, making it more difficult to control in emergency situations. Placing any load on the roof also raises the center of gravity and increases the likelihood of a rollover.8

The NHTSA has recommended that:

  • Fifteen-passenger vans be operated by trained, experienced drivers.
  • All occupants wear seat belts at all times. (NHTSA found that 80 percent of those who died in fifteen-passenger van rollovers nationwide in the year 2000 were not buckled up.)
  • Regularly check tire pressure and treadware to ensure that the tires are properly inflated and the tread is not worn down.

As we have reported previously in CampLine, in some cases, insurance companies that specialize in institutional policies for schools and churches have decided to drop coverage for fifteen-passenger vans. Studies of claims in accidents involving fifteen-passenger vans indicated eight deaths and forty-two serious injuries in a two-year period ending in 2001. Guide One, the Nation’s largest church insurance company, no longer issues new policies on fifteen-passenger vans and urges customers to purchase smaller school buses as an alternative.9

So, What to Do?

  1. First and foremost, educate yourself and others at your camp. Do your own research. Read everything you can about the issue. An excellent reading list is available at ACA’s Web Site:
  2. Talk to your insurance carrier. Discuss coverage and risk.
  3. Evaluate your situation. How do you use transportation? How often do you transport campers? What are the road conditions you travel?
  4. Make your decision. Ask the tough question before you have to — if an accident should happen, how would you defend your decision in court?
  5. If you decide to use fifteen-passenger vans, ACA strongly encourages you to follow all of the NTSB’s recommendations, require adequate training for drivers, limit the amount of weight placed on the vehicle, do not tow a trailer behind a fully-loaded van, and require the use of seat belts.

Originally published in the 2003 Winter issue of The CampLine.